The Way West #5

This is my NaNoWriMo project for August 2012.  I’m posting one chapter at a time however many words I’ve written, but I’m 20% throughthe challenge now.  To see earlier chapters click here.  All comments welcome.  Story copyright Jemima Pett.

Chapter 5: Bed and breakfast

In which Humphrey’s talents come in handy

None of his companions answered his question. Humphrey realised all three were asleep.  He checked they were asleep; they had fought long and hard today. He was grateful they’d fought but had no thought that he might have participated. He had no idea how.  He remembered a time during his youth in the bowels of Castle Arbor, when he’d been one of four of the young males had been put into a ring and told to fight each other.  They were told that the winner would get extra food that night.  One had stepped forward and bared his teeth at the other three. They in turn bared their teeth at each other. Humphrey had thought he probably had the biggest, whitest teeth, but he saw no point in getting them dirty, so he’d shut his mouth again and sat in a corner to watch the others. Another came and sat with him, while the third told the most aggressive one he had won and sat down at his feet. Their schoolmasters had laughed at them, calling them cowards, but Humphrey didn’t think they were, just sensible.  The winner had gone off and been put with others to fight, and he’d seen him going past on one occasion, his ear ripped and bleeding bite marks on his neck.  He would be scarred for life, and for what, thought Humphrey.

He shook himself out of his reverie and sent his ears out and up to listen to what was going on in this castle.

The only sounds came from above him, so he thought they might still be below the level of the castle’s main courtyard.  Someone was making sounds there, dragging things around.  They were the sort of sounds he’d heard at the end of the day in Arbor as well. Up another level to his right, some young people were giggling, possibly up to some childish game or mischief although Humphrey didn’t have much concept of what play involved, so he couldn’t interpret the sounds. Across the castle on the same level, numerous persons were exchanging comments and chatting, making the sort of background noise he found difficult to understand. It was familiar as a general set of sounds though, people in their homes talking to each other and settling down for the night.  He wondered whether the woman from the stall was anywhere nearby.  He focussed his hearing for her voice, and sent it ranging. Not in the castle. Perhaps someone in the community outside, but it was only a snatch of voice as a female said “Go to bed!” to someone with a young voice who was whining in complaint.

He came back to the castle.  Another level up, near where he thought the gates must be, two males were chatting, debating the good and bad points about someone they called ‘The Nags’.  Humphrey matched their conversation to a book he’d read about occupations, then about recreations, and thought they were talking about  the prospects for their local team in some sport this winter. Humphrey had never seen sport.  He didn’t really understand what the book had said about it either.  It rather ranked with fighting in the way he classified things in his head.

A level above these two males, four people were discussing something in low voices. Humphrey was about to pass over, since it seemed uninteresting, when he stopped.

“Colman is fool to have tried that.”  A deep voice, authoritative.

“He’s no fool.  He either gambled and lost or made a strategic move.  What does he gain by that sortie?” Someone of equal or higher rank, Humphrey thought.

“The exiles don’t return here?” The third contributor, somewhat high-pitched in voice.

“He doesn’t mind the exiles.  They are just sport for him.” The second speaker.

“Between vampires and pirates, I’d take vampires every time.” The fourth person, rather silky voiced.

Deep voice chuckled, a really throaty, vibrant sound. “You take a rather special view, of course.  Pirates are no problem when well-handled.”

“What do you make of the reports of a ninja?” asked the second speaker.

“A white ninja at that,” said the fourth.

“Could they be mistaken?” asked the second.

“They are usually reliable. If you doubt their description of the white one, you have to doubt the rest too,” Deep Voice replied.

There was a pause.  Humphrey wondered what they were doing as they waited.  He often wondered what people did while they were talking.  He’d wandered the corridors under the hill looking at people sitting in their alcoves, but someone asked him who he was looking for, and another asked angrily what he was looking at, and Betty suggested he stopped since it unsettled people.

The higher ranked person broke the silence.

“We won’t solve anything tonight. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Humphrey heard the persons move and a door open.  He thought he might need to follow their footsteps through the castle but Deep Voice said something very quietly.

“We may need to recruit the white ninja.”

“If she is the one I think, we already have.”

This was said so quietly Humphrey wasn’t sure who said it.  It might have been the person who stayed in the room where the four had been talking. The whole situation took him back to Arbor, where he could listen to Queen Eleanor and her Head of Security, Big Sylv, plotting things unbeknown to other members of the extended family.  It never involved him, so he didn’t really have an interest, but it reminded him of the stories he really enjoyed reading, and worked through in his head when he wanted to ‘escape’ the confines of his dark cage.

He rested his ears and thought about the white ninja. What did ninja mean? He searched his books and found a definition in the second dictionary he checked: a person skilled in the martial art using camouflage.  Were they talking about Betty? He agreed that Betty had fought well, which he thought was a martial art.  He didn’t notice her using camouflage, although she did seem to be in different places impossibly quickly. But Betty hadn’t appeared to him to be ‘martial’ in the sense he had found it in both dictionaries.  She was very kind to him, and very skilled in basketry and craft.  She patched the wheel on the cart too, even though he had taken it to a wheelwright to be fixed while the others bartered in the market.  The wheelwright, that was really interesting.  Humphrey had watched very carefully as he had taken the mended spokes out, cut new ones and replaced them.  So many different tools he’d used!  Humphrey could have watched him all day.

He replayed the wheelwright’s activity in his mind.  Blinking his eyes as it finished, he got up and looked at his companions.  They were still sleeping.  Humphrey decided to read a bedtime story to himself.  He flicked through a few he enjoyed and settled down with:

“The Mole had been working hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

After his busy day, he soon fell asleep.

~~~

It was dark when they awoke.  Fortunately the tunnel had a slight slope in it otherwise they might have not known which way to go.  It was so black, even their excellent eyesight had difficulty distinguishing anything ahead of them.  They could sense the sides of the tunnel, though, and the gradient, so they headed upwards to see what lay before them.  They hardly spoke, and when they did so, it was only in murmurs.

“How’s your arm?” Betty asked Hywel.

“Stiff, swollen, sore.  Might slow me up slightly.”

“We shouldn’t need to move quickly for a bit, I hope,” murmured Freya.

She led the way for a while, but as time went on and they imagined themselves winding slowly round the perimeter of the castle, deep in the foundations, she leant to one side and called Humphrey through. “Come on wise guy, you found this tunnel, you’d better lead us out of it.”

Humphrey was surprised but went forward as he was bid.  After just a few minutes he stopped abruptly and Freya bumped into him, causing a knock-on effect as Hywel bumped into her.  Betty seemed to anticipate the sudden halt.

“What is it, Humphrey?” she called softly.

”People moving, the other side of this wall.”

“We may be near an exit then.  Let me feel for secret panels.”  She moved past Hywel and Freya to stand alongside Humphrey.  He couldn’t see her, but he didn’t think she was feeling the wall with her hands.  She moved forward. Humphrey followed.

“It’s further,” he said, not knowing why he said it.

They could hear voices on the other side of the wall quite clearly now.  People were asking for food, exchanging morning greetings, asking whether they could sit down, complaining about the strength of the drinks.  Betty felt her way cautiously along the corridor, thinking that emerging in a busy place might be easier than somewhere deserted.

“Stop!” she whispered.

Whether light was filtering through the wall itself, or it was another trick of the light, it seemed to the three behind that they could see her white coat and her hands reaching up and waving across the smooth side of the wall.

“Try here,” said Humphrey, touching a spot just to her left.

A panel slid open very slowly, and very quietly.  Betty grabbed the edge of it to stop it exposing more of their whereabouts than necessary.  She peered out, assessing the situation.

“We’re in luck,” she said.  “It’s a dining hall and there’s a spare table just near us.  Slide out one at a time and take a seat.  I’ll go first.  Join me as if you’ve just seen me and it’s a normal morning thing.”

Humphrey watched her go and wondered if he could do this.  He didn’t know what a ‘normal morning thing’ was.  He hesitated and looked at Freya.  He solved his problem by holding the sliding panel for her and waving her through.

“You’d best give me a hand, Humphrey,” said Hywel.  A relieved Humphrey helped a very lame Hwyel across to the table, letting the panel slide silently shut behind them.

“Room for two more, ladies?” said Hywel as he reached the table.  The females moved sideways as if they hadn’t been expecting them, leaving room for one on each side of the table.  Humphrey helped Hywel to his seat then took his own.  He looked around the dining hall in wonder.

“Don’t stare, Humphrey,” said Freya with a glare, “you’ll draw attention to us.”

Humphrey pulled his gaze back to the table in front of him and his face resumed its customary mournful expression.  The food smelled delicious and he wondered how they could get some.

“Well, if we don’t get some food, we’ll draw attention to ourselves anyway,” said Betty. “Anyone had experience of this set-up?  Do we barter?”

“I think we have to belong to a castle and it goes on their bill. Or have independent wealth,” said Freya.

“Okay.  Come with me, then — you boys stay here.”

Betty walked calmly across the hall followed by Freya and joined the line of people waiting for their turn to be served.  The long table in front of them had dishes of different foodstuffs, which were replenished as soon as they started to run empty.  People in front of her picked up a flat plate each and started helping themselves from the dishes.  Some people only had a few items, others piled their plates high.  Betty and Freya took a plate each and started piling them high.  They neared the end of the table and watched the people in front.

“Two from Dimerie,” a female three in front of her said to a person at the end who was writing in a large ledger.

“And two more,” said the next.

“Good morning, Daph,” said the next person.

“Hi Marcus, how many are you eating for today then?” said the ledger person, noting something in the ledger.

“This is for two but I might need seconds,” grinned Marcus.

“Two from Fortune,” said Betty, moving forward confidently.

“And two more,” said Freya, picking up Betty’s idea.

“Where are your visitor badges?” asked Daph as he wrote in the ledger.

“Oops, sorry, left them upstairs,” said Betty.

“Don’t forget them next time.  They are your passport to everything,” he added, losing interest in them and looking at the people behind, who greeted him by name just as Marcus had.

Betty and Freya walked back to their table, carrying the plates.  They both tried not to show their elation at passing their first test of infiltration.

The boys stared at the food in amazement.  Hywel reached out to grab some eagerly and Freya shushed him.

“Don’t act like it’s unusual!”

“Well, that was good,” Betty said, as she munched on one of the breakfast rolls. “But we need to acquire a few visitor passes.  One at least.”

“And make them show we come from Fortune.  Where the heck is that?” asked Freya.

“Not far from Dimerie,” Betty replied. “With those others from Dimerie in front of us I thought it wouldn’t be that remarkable.”

“I thought Fortune was abandoned, in ruins,” commented Hywel as he did justice to the pile of oatcakes in front of him.

“They’ve a new king,” said Betty.  “I considered going back there. They are welcoming newcomers who want to live an honest life.”

“Why didn’t you?” Hywel mumbled through some crunching.

“Maybe I don’t want to live an honest life,” Betty said and buried her face in some fresh herbs and fruit.

“We need a visitor’s pass,” said Humphrey.

“Yes, Humphrey,” said Freya, rolling her eyes at his idiocy. “Two would be better.  I presume four would be perfect.  Marked that we’re from Castle Fortune probably.  Can you magic those out of thin air?”

Freya’s sarcasm was once again completely lost on Humphrey.

“I’ll try,” he said, and continued munching his breakfast steadily. “How do we get something to drink?”

Hywel watched the general flow of people round the hall.   “There’s some hot drinks over in that corner, and some water jars near the breakfast table.  I’ll have cawffee or herb tea if you’re getting them.”

“Mm, me too,” said Betty.

“And me.”

“How can I carry four?” asked Humphrey.

“Get one of those carrier things – see that person in the red?  He’s got one,” said Hywel directing Humphrey’s gaze.

Humphrey stood and set off on his mission.  He was taking in everything of his surroundings, storing actions to review later, watching manoeuvres to copy and use himself.  He had always been a quick learner.  He joined another line at the corner table where people were leaving with small trays of drinks.  As he picked up an empty carrier he saw a square label on a string next to it, so he picked that up too.

“Cawffee or mint?” the server at the table said.

“Two of each,” Humphrey replied.  He received four cups of hot liquid which were slotted into his carrier, and he took them carefully back to the table.

“Wonderful!” said Betty.

“You’re improving,” said Freya.

“What’s that?” asked Hywel as he took his cup out of the slot, revealing the label thing.

“It was lying there,” said Humphrey, passing it to him.

Hywel examined it, looked at Humphrey and then at the others in stunned silence, and passed it to Betty, who registered what it said, and passed it to Freya.

“Blimey, Humphrey!” she said. “Who did you steal this from?”

“It was lying there,” Humphrey repeated, not understanding their reactions.

“Well,” Betty said, “I wonder if we can get by with one perfect visitor’s pass made out for Humphrey of Fortune?”

Go to Chapter 6

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One thought on “The Way West #5

  1. Cawffee! Lol.

    Oh those poor boys, made to fight at Arbor. Humph and the others were very sensible indeed — pacifists without even realizing that there is such a concept.

    “But Betty hadn’t appeared to him to be ‘martial’ in the sense he had found it in both dictionaries.”

    This brings up an interesting point. In karate training, it was always implied, and often explicitly stated, that we shouldn’t use what we’d learned except in a self-defense situation. The goal of studying martial arts was to “improve one’s character” and become a “better person” — physically stronger, more physically and mentally disciplined, more compassionate towards others (especially the disabled, the poor, seniors), etc.

    While I studied, I bought into this whole thing. But now, I wonder. Yes, of course one wants to become a better person, but the whole practice of martial arts is inherently violent. It involves punching and kicking others. Even in a light-contact sparring bout, you’re learning how to do damage to another body.

    Improving one’s character on one hand, and doing violence on the other — are these concepts fundamentally at odds? I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s an answer. I’m rambling….

    PS. A lot of what I learned would be useless in self-defense, like learning to fight with the bo — a 6-foot-tall stick. Who walks around with such a stick?? Lol.

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