The Way West #12

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 12: The Narrathon

In which Humphrey follows a path well trod and meets a hero

His tired feet found a white path cut into the side of the turf-covered hill. They followed it without him doing any conscious thinking.  He had travelled to White Horse some days ago, he couldn’t work out just when, but he had returned yesterday evening.  Now he was going back again, even though he didn’t really know the way.  He knew it was south, and across these grassy hills.

The path had strange twists and turns in it and now he was on a downhill stretch. It rounded a curve and stretched away up the hill again.  Humphrey stopped, and looked up the side of the hill.  He was standing at the bottom of a loop in the path which continued up a way, then across the hillside, down and up again, then round a bit, then out straight, turned a corner and came back a little higher up.  It makes a drawing or pattern on the hillside, he thought and laughed at himself for following it blindly.  He turned his back to the pattern and looked out over another stretch of grass that undulated gently downwards to fields in the distance.  There were tents on the fields, and flags hanging limply, strung between naked trees. Off to the left, silhouetted against the wintry sun, was a castle.  He hoped it was White Horse.

He sat down in the bottom loop of the white path and stretched his feet out in front of him.  It was good to rest a while.  He dropped his head down on them and let himself relax.  Immediately his brain returned to the problem that had occurred to him during his journey.  What was he going to do when he got to the castle?  How was he going to get in?  He imagined himself talking to the security guards on the gate, explaining he’d been away for the night but had come for the Narrathon.  Would they expect him to have a sash already?  What would he say?  He’d never had to talk to people like that before.  He thought of Betty and Freya and what they said to people like that.  He realised they hadn’t spoken to security guards, only to ledger clerks and people like that.  The more he thought about this, the more terrified he became.  Maybe he should go through his secret passage.  But then he wouldn’t have a sash.  How would he get one? He’d have to talk to the security guards.  They’d want to know why he was inside without one. It was impossible, Humphrey thought.  He ought to turn round and go back.  But he did want to go to the Narrathon so much.

He woke and shook himself.  The sun was as high as it was going to get, and if he didn’t make up his mind, he’d miss the Narrathon and that would make this whole thing a waste of time and effort.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if you miss the Narrathon, a small voice said inside him.  No, said a bigger one.  I want to see it!

He stepped boldly from the path and headed directly to the castle.

Less than half an hour later he joined a short line of people waiting to go through the castle gates.  He listened to the people in front of him and hoped he would be able to make up the answers to the questions he was asked.  They moved forward quickly.  He’d be there in a few minutes.  He started to panic, and looked around him for somewhere to hide.

Behind him was a brown coloured person with a very strange pile of sticks on his back.

“Bit of a pain, this, isn’t it,” he said.

“Er, yes,” said Humphrey, not entirely sure what he meant by “this”.

“I mean, it’s obvious who I am, I came through yesterday, they know me, but I still have to go through all the checks.”

“I was here yesterday,” Humphrey said, “I have a visitor’s pass but I left before they gave out the sashes.”

“Oh, you’ll be okay then,” said the brown person, who was beginning to remind Humphrey of someone he had seen the day before.  “Just show your pass.”

Humphrey wondered where he’d put it.  Then he realised it was still tucked under his arm, hidden safely away.  He wondered if the person would mind if he asked him about his sticks.

“Come on, then,” said the brown person, nodding up the path to the gates where a gap had opened up.  Humphrey turned and quickly closed up to the person in front.  They were nearly there.  He hugged his pass tighter, making sure it was still there.

Then it was his turn.

“Name?” asked the guard.  Humphrey thought he was very large and fierce.

“Humphrey of Fortune,” he replied, trying not to stutter, and he pulled out his pass and showed it to the guard.

“Why didn’t you get a sash yesterday, then?”

“I, er, I left before they were given out.”

“That was silly of you, Humphrey of Fortune,” said the guard, handing over a purple sash with an F marked on it in white. “Put this on, and don’t take it off, and don’t lose it.”

“Thank you,” said Humphrey breathlessly, climbing into his sash.

“Come on, Harrison,” said the brown person to the guard, “let me in, won’t you?”

Harrison, the guard, laughed. “Yes sir, Mister Willoughby.  Or should I call you Lord Willoughby since you seem all high and mighty all of a sudden?”

Humphrey’s insides did somersaults.  Willoughby the Narrator!  He’d been talking to a real live Narrator!  Who was taking part in the Narrathon!

“Excuse me, Mr Willoughby,” he said to him as they moved through the gates. “Where is the best place to sit to listen to you today?”

“Right by my fiddlesticks, Humphrey of Fortune,” he said with a wink.  “Don’t they have narrators at Fortune yet?”

“Er, no, not yet,” Humphrey hoped he was right, and remembering what someone had said about Fortune, “We’re still rebuilding things.”

“Well, you make sure they have a Narrathon at Yule and I’ll be there.  I could do with somewhere a little milder at Yule.”

“Um, yes, I’ll do my best,” Humphrey stammered and the Narrator grinned at him and bounded up the remaining steps with his fiddlesticks on his back.  Humphrey watched from the edge of the main square as he found a spot he liked, then swung the sticks over his head and placed them on the ground, making a sort of archway.  He jumped up on them, giving himself a raised platform, looked around then jumped down and adjusted the angle a little.  He jumped back up, then lay across them and winked across the courtyard at Humphrey, who grinned back.

“If you could run to buying a thirsty Narrator a Vex or two, Humphrey of Fortune, it would be well appreciated!”

Humphrey was puzzled for a moment then remembered Hywel and Freya discussing the merits of different drinks in the tavern.  He slipped into the nearest one and waited at the bar until someone was free to serve him.

“Two Vexes, please,” he said.

The barperson turned and took two bottles from the rack behind them, unscrewed the tops and handed them over. “Fortune, right?” he said.

“Er, yes,” stammered Humphrey.

“Next!” the barperson said, ignoring Humphrey, who realised he’d just bought two bottles of ale.  He walked back out with them and sat at the base of Willoughby’s fiddlesticks just as the announcer started telling everybody to take their seats for the Narrathon.  Willoughby gave him a thumbsup.

“Pop the bottle under my sticks and enjoy the other one yourself,” he said.  “I’ve met literalists like you before.”

Humphrey paused over the word ‘literalists’ but checked it in his personal dictionary and decided Willoughby was right.

~

The four narrators present had each told two stories.  Humphrey had enjoyed all of them immensely.  He liked Willougby’s version of The Princess and the Pea, which was different from one he found in a book in his memory but much more sensible, he thought.  Why would a prince want to marry a fussy princess?  Some people behind him had discussed the variation too.  It seemed to be well received.  His second story had been really scary and he was glad it had a happy ending.  A few  people had shrieked at the scariest moments.  Humphrey’s coat had stood on end as he imagined the ghosts moving through the castle chasing the little boy and girl.

He’d also worked out that one of the narrators was resident at White Horse, a big guy with fuzzy hair called Crimp.  Halfway through his story of the giant, Humphrey had remembered that Crimp and Harrison had been competitors in the Strong Man event.  The other two narrators came from a long way away. Bennett was the resident narrator at Castle Buckmore, and he had a large number of persons around his fiddlesticks.  Apparently it was a very unusual for Buckmore’s narrator to attend other castle’s events.  The rumour was that the King of Buckmore had sent him as a goodwill gesture to King Benson.  He was a very good speaker, Humphrey thought, realising he would have to have a great deal of practice before he could try his skills at reciting a story at a narrathon. The fourth speaker was introduced as Henry, an apprentice narrator on his final journey before qualifying as a journeyman.  He spoke confidently, and twisted his tale with a wide range of voices and sound effects he made with his lips, teeth, mouth and toes.  Humphrey was fascinated by him, and wondered what one had to do to become an apprentice.

After all four narrators had finished, the announcer said the final three competitors in the original poetry competition would speak and then there would be a break.

The narrators all lay on their fiddlesticks and looked at the stage where two very nervous young people and one older, confident-looking person stood in a row.  The audience took their cue from the narrators and waited politely for the poets to speak.  They all received cheers and whistles for their poems, and they looked relieved they’d finished.  Humphrey recognised that the older and one of the younger people had recited well, but the one who was less confident had the poem he liked best; it conjured up images of sunlight through green trees, rain through russet trees, cold snow through bare branches, and the dappled bright green light and showers of spring through buds bursting.

The three were joined on stage by the competitors who had spoken the previous day, before the poetry had been abandoned.  A very grand person stepped forward to present the prizes as the announcer told everyone who had won.  Humphrey was delighted to see the less confident person take second prize.  He wondered what the winner’s poem had been like.

He was just moving towards the tavern, which was the direction most of the audience were heading, when a voice resounded in his head.

“Humphrey! Go to the inner courtyard NOW!”

Go to Chapter 13

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