The Way West #17

This is my NaNoWriMo project for August 2012.  I’m posting one chapter at a time (Monday,Wednesday & Friday).  To see earlier chapters click here.  All comments welcome.  Story copyright Jemima Pett.

Chapter 17: Preparations

In which Betty sends a message and Humphrey listens till dawn

Diesel nodded to two of the newly trained persons, the ones who had failed to build their tower in time, who were standing in for the guards on the gate.  The guards had been summoned to the Great Hall, where the king would be briefing them on the expected battle.  Diesel was on his way to the Cursus to do the same to those encamped there.

“I want you to listen to what people say to each other when I’m talking, Humphrey,” he said as they left the road leading up the castle gates.  “I am essentially explaining the plan to them like King Benson is to our troops and other fighters, but some will want to fight with us, some will want to take shelter and some will say they want to fight but will probably be spies.  Find me those spies.”

Humphrey nodded, hoping he could tell the difference.

Diesel leapt up onto the stage that was there for people to watch the races. The camping people and a few others, plus those of the community who lived that side of the castle, all gathered round.  They had been told this was going to happen by the guards before they went for their own briefing.

“Good afternoon, everyone, or maybe it’s evening now,” he added, since it was nearly dark.  Some people held lamps but most were content with the glow of the occasional light around the cursus spectator area.

“My name is Lord Diesel; I am both Head of Security and the King’s Steward.  I am here to explain to you what is going on now, and what may go on in the next couple of nights, and what options are open to you to secure your safety.

“At this moment, the King is explaining the same things to our combined forces and the castle residents and visitors.  Princeling Louis is doing the same in the market place.  Although you are not of Castle White Horse, you are our guests and you are welcome here.  One of the reasons you came is to find safety from parties, both organised and disorganised, that sought to capture you or move you away from here.  Am I right?”

There were general murmurs among the crowd that Diesel interpreted as agreement, so he continued.

“We are happy that you did so and we intend to provide that safety for you.  Now listen carefully, and wait till I’ve got to the end before you make any decisions.  I will answer questions at the end if you have any.

“A short while ago, we obtained intelligence that an attack on us is being prepared.  It is a major attack with many strands.  One strand attempts to overcome the guards here on the cursus, and attack you, while other strands attack the market place and the castle.  I use the term strands, because it is not just one attack on each target.  It is more like a spider’s web of strands.  Fortunately, we know what is planned.  And we have made out plans to overcome and repel any and all these attacks.  What we are not sure of, is whether our enemies know that we know.

“If they know, they may change their plans.  Or they may assume we think they’ll change them, and stick to them.  They are good plans, well thought out.  If I were them, I’d stick to the plans but throw in some variations.

“The point is that here on the cursus there will be a fight, either tonight or tomorrow night or the day after.  What should you do about it?

“You are free to do as you wish.  But I have options for you.  Firstly, you can join us and fight with our troops.  Secondly you can move into the Great Hall as a temporary measure.  You will be safe there, and you will be allowed to leave when this emergency is over. Thirdly you can move on, away from the area. I would recommend you go west if you want to be out of the way of the fighting.  It’s a long way to any other castle, it’s across barren, hilly terrain, but it is relatively safe.  You know why you chose to come here, so in your shoes I would probably stay, but I am not you.

“Now, this matter is urgent.  I need you to make up your minds in only a few minutes.  If you want to move into the castle for safety, please assemble over there by the gate in five minutes.  Those who want to join us and fight, please stay here.  If you want to leave, please pack your belongings and leave before the castle clock strikes five. That’s about twenty minutes from now.

“Any questions?”

Humphrey stopped half-listening to the questions that Diesel was asked, concentrating on a small person near the edge.  Everyone else was talking about what they should do.  He was talking about someone called Duffield, and whether they should ‘get over there and warn him’.  What Humphrey couldn’t see was to whom he was talking.  He spread his listening out further in case there were others.

“Oi, you!” someone said, poking him in the shoulder.

“Me?” said Humphrey, jumping round and facing the speaker.

“Yeah, you!  Aren’t you the guy that went off with Hywel and Betty and Freya to the market here and never came back?”

It was the person that hadn’t liked Humphrey watching him and his family in the alcoves under the hill.

“Well, I am, but we went back, and you’d all gone,” said Humphrey, defending himself well against the verbal attack.  Maybe his swordsmanship was helping, he thought.

The guy from the hill bristled, then relaxed.  “Yeah, I suppose that’s true enough. Do you know anything of the others?”

“The other two parties?” Humphrey wasn’t sure whether he should tell him, but decided some of his information might be obvious, in the circumstances.  “I haven’t got any certain information, but I think they were probably captured.”

“Like we’re going to be, then,” the other said gloomily.

“Will you fight?” Humphrey asked.

“What’s the point? We’ll die of starvation before the winter’s out, so we might as well let them kill us.”

Humphrey was shocked at his attitude. He wondered if the others felt the same. “Maybe you and your family can stay safe in the castle,” he suggested.

“What’s left of us,” said the other, and he wandered off.

Humphrey was so surprised that he carried on listening to him, even though he was listening for potential spies at the same time.  The woman he joined told him to ‘get a move on’ as they had to get into the castle.  They carried two children with them to the large group at the gate.  Humphrey wondered where the other three children were.

Diesel finished briefing the ones who were willing to fight, and Humphrey hadn’t located anyone who seemed to be a spy.  Then he remembered the little guy talking to someone, and spotted him in the group listening to Diesel.  Willoughby was standing beside him.

Do you know that little guy next to you? Humphrey thought to him.

He’s under control, Willoughby responded.

Humphrey wandered round to the other side of the group, where some of them were chatting quietly.  It didn’t sound like they were doing anything other than discussing what Diesel had told them. Humphrey wondered whether he was doing this right.

He sent his hearing off to the north, past the white horse on the hillside and on to the place under the hill.  All was quiet there. Then he heard someone as if they had just walked through a door.

Humphrey, if you can hear me, tell Willoughby we’ll be there tomorrow night.

It was Betty.

~~~

Humphrey hunkered down under a blanket one of the guards had lent him.  He had been posted at the top of the north-east tower, with the mission of monitoring the sounds of the night, and raising the alarm for any suspicious noises.  All was quiet, and it was freezing.

Everyone was irritable, having spent the first few hours jumping at any sound at all, however innocent. Diesel himself had come up at one stage, chatting to the sentries and easing their minds.  He said it would be a great tactic to have them on alert for two or three nights now before the enemy attacked, so that their nerves were frayed or they got careless.  His visit did a great deal to raise spirits at the low point of the night.

Humphrey poked his nose above the wall.  He could tell the sun was just about to come over the horizon, even though it was foggy again.  He looked out properly as the light brightened. He could see layers of mist, thick low down so he couldn’t see the ground, another layer just above the roofs of the village outside and then a higher layer above the castle.  He thought the sun might show itself between the layers.  He hadn’t seen it for days.  Despite having grown up in the dark, he loved the sun rather than avoiding it.  Sometimes on his early travels he had hidden from it, but he’d gradually got used to it.  Now he craved its warmth on his back.  Even a sickly winter sun was welcome. His black coat absorbed it like he was a heat sponge.

A noise to the north-east brought him to his feet.  He identified it as a wagon or two rolling down the lane to the market, and told the guard next to him.

“Oh, it’ll just be early arrivals for the market,” the guard said.

They watched the mist swirl below them and the pretty patterns made by the rising sun between the layers.  The guard tensed.

“It’s not market day,” he said, and left his station abruptly.

Humphrey saw him a few minutes later, hurrying across the courtyard far below to the guard house. A messenger emerged, running towards the entrance to the King’s apartments, and a platoon of guards followed, hastily adjusting their uniforms and sword belts as they paced at double time out of the castle towards the market.

He watched their progress from his eyrie. The two remaining guards on this part of the wall extended their patrol area to cover the gap left by the other guard’s departure.  Humphrey decided he could leave the question of unexpected wagons to the professionals and resumed his listening scan in the far distance.

It was quiet.

Go to Chapter 18

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