The Way West #18 – a long one

This is my Camp NaNoWriMo project.  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 18: And Live To Fight Another Day

In which Betty and Willoughby display their skills and Humphrey displays his fear

As dusk fell, Humphrey climbed back up the stairs to the north-east tower’s ramparts.  He’d brought his own blanket with him this evening.  He reviewed his three tasks: listen for Betty and her group; listen for unexplained noises, and listen for an attack.

He listened hard in the direction he expected Betty to come from.  If it was just her, or just his three old companions, he would surely be able to hear them.  Betty would think at him, wouldn’t she? If the pirates came too, wouldn’t they make a lot of noise?  He remembered how much noise they had made in the lane when they had first been ambushed.  They can be very quiet when they want to. That thought made him think again about not being able to hear anything under the hill when he was outside it.  Who blocked his hearing and why? The first stage to overcoming a block is to attune yourself to the blocker, Willoughby had said. He’d also spoken about guessing who the blocker was. Humphrey had no idea who was imposing this block.  He spent a little while trying to locate the signs of a block in that direction, but if there was one, he couldn’t trace it.

A rustling noise a few miles off on the eastern side caught his attention.  He listened carefully.  It reminded him of the rustling of the strange beings on the night they were attacked. He beckoned one of the guards.

“I can hear sounds that could be an army moving, a way off at the moment, maybe leaving Castle Deeping,” he added, hoping he was right.

The guard nodded and went down to the guard room.  A messenger crossed the courtyard to the King’s apartments.  The guard returned to his post, with a quick nod to Humphrey.

Messengers emerged from the King’s apartments and scurried about the castle, some going outside to the community and the cursus.  Humphrey watched them until they faded into the dusk.  It wasn’t misty any more, but it was even colder.  Light clouds scudded across the sky; the earliest stars could be seen in the gaps between them.

A shuffling noise caught his attention; it was coming from inside the castle.  People were running up the stairs that led to the ramparts, the stairs of each tower.  He looked at guard near him in alarm but he was relaxed.   The guard noticed, though.

“Our archers,” he said.

Humphrey searched through his books to find ‘archers’ and relaxed.  A number of persons, each with a pouch slung over their shoulders with feathered sticks showing at the opening, and something Humphrey assumed was a bow in one hand, pattered along the walkway where Humphrey sat, and took up a position looking out over the dark fields.  Humphrey had one on either side of him.  It was getting crowded on the ramparts, he thought.

“What news of this possible army, young Humphrey?” asked Diesel, who  followed the archers up the stairs.

“It’s a rustling noise that I heard before when my companions and I were attacked,” Humphrey explained. “There are many people moving quietly, well organised,” he added, hoping he wasn’t making a fool of himself.

“Good,” said Diesel.  He gazed out over the dark fields.  “It’s a good night for an attack.  Anything to the south?”

Humphrey checked all around. “No,” he said.

They stood in silence for a while.

“The volunteers on the cursus are talking about going up to the white horse for something they call a recce.” Humphrey told Diesel.

“Hmm,” was all Diesel said.

A while later: “There are people walking on the road from Forest.”

Diesel’s eyes narrowed and he beckoned to the nearest guard. “Message to Prince Colin: code A advancing, possibly code C1 as well.”

“Yes sir,” the guard responded and scurried away down the stairs.

“Something’s coming up the wall!” Humphrey whispered urgently. The archers on either side drew their bows and looked out, both taking aim on something immediately below Humphrey and Diesel.

“Halt, who goes there?” called one of the guards, looking over too.

“Only me, Willoughby,” said Willoughby, failing to halt and sliding over the wall right in Diesel’s face. “Sorry, guards, but good work and all that,” he added.

He took Diesel by the shoulder and moved him out of earshot of the archers and guards.  Humphrey stayed where he was and half-listened.

“We have some complications, but the northern attack will be handled by my colleague. The southern attack has split into two parts, one aims for the dry valley, the other for the southern road.  A small elite squad could handle the dry valley, an ambush perhaps. The eastern force is in the formation we expect but something else is with them. Your secret weapon may be needed.”

Willoughby spoke rapidly, and Diesel simply nodded and left.  Humphrey heard him give orders for a small ambush unit to go to the dry valley, and for yeomen to distribute garlic as planned. He started discussing tactics with King Benson and a silky voiced person and Humphrey left them to it.

~~~

Betty moved silently through shadows, unseen despite her white coat.  What remained of the pirate band were moving quietly over the grassy hillside, heading for the dell where they had ambushed the four on the way to market only two weeks ago. It felt like months, Betty thought, as she watched one group circle round on the hillside opposite.  About half of the sick pirates had recovered and seemed invigorated by the exercise, rather than tiring from it.  Hywel was better, much to her relief, and had made friends among the pirates that he’d been with in the sickbay. Freya was more wayward than ever, and had announced yesterday that she was going east to find Chester. Betty was surprised she’d gone without Hywel, but let her go without a comment.

Once more Betty tried to contact Humphrey.  It did not really matter that she was unable to update Willoughby of their progress. It would have been helpful, though. She suspected she might be able to get through if she had been on the other side of the hill, but she was not going to go there now. She sensed that their prey was not far away.

An owl hooted from further down the hillside.  A good imitation, she thought. She checked on the weapons she had secreted about her person.  They had been in the stores under the hill, and nobody seemed to recognise them, or their usefulness.

Crunching noises on the road.  About fifty persons, Betty reckoned.  More than two each.  But they were coming in a double or triple file, and they would be vulnerable to a side-on attack.  Betty slid into the lower branches of a tree overhanging the lane.  If anyone looked up, she would look like a barn owl to them.  Betty was good at disguises.  A few pirates crept closer to the edge of the road, flanking her.

The column stopped and some curses could be heard at its front.  Then the unmistakeable sound of swords being drawn from their sheaths.  Clangs of steel on steel.  The latter half of the column started to surge forward to engage any enemy ahead, and as they funnelled into the lane where the steep sides boxed them in, the pirates charged at them from behind.

Swords sang in their rhythmic pounding. Punches smacked into jaws, thudded into stomachs; grunts, coughs, curses and occasional screams responded to the one-two of seasoned fighters. Bodies flew through the air, hurled by one side or the other.  Some bounced, off the road or the softer banks.  Others landed crookedly, lay there; sometimes the owner twitched or seemed to struggle with himself before falling still.

Betty watched the ebb and flow of the battle, noticing how many of the pirates seemed to use their teeth as weapons as much as their fists or blades.  There seemed to be a small trickle of the enemy getting through at the front.  She slipped from her tree and sprang lightly down to where the road opened out again.  Some ten or so enemy soldiers burst through the pirate blockade and ran down the road towards her position.  She pulled a package from her personal armoury and threw the contents over the road.  The soldiers fell to the ground, rolling over and holding their feet, then their sides as they embedded small spikes into their skins. “Caltrops!” warned one soldier to those behind him.  It made them pause long enough for the pirates to leap on them from the rear, and the sickening sound of throats being slit and air escaping from all the wrong places overtook the curses from the people on the ground.

“Take prisoners!” called the pirate leader, Frankie.  “Tie ’em up in the dell, make sure they’re secure!”

“Take care on the road!” called Betty to the pirates that approached, “drag them to the side first!”

A few pirates got caltrops in their feet despite the warning. These four-pronged metal nuggets that always sat with a spike upwards whichever way they lay were useful weapons on a hard surface.  As the pirates cleared the scene, Betty jumped down and nimbly retrieved the scattered caltrops and stored them away for future use.  She returned to the dell where Frankie was assessing the situation.  He turned to her as she arrived.

“About ten got away from the back of the pack,” he said.  “Did any get past you at the front?”

“No,” she replied.

“I’m inclined to let them go,” he said.

Betty said nothing.  Willoughby had asked her to make sure this route was secured.  They had secured it.  She didn’t think it was necessary to prevent anyone returning to their point of origin.

“Make sure they are secure,” Frankie directed his men.  “Any of our guys need attention?”

A few slash wounds, but these pirates were hardened to ordinary battle, were veterans of many skirmishes. Jumping on the enemy from the banks above the lane was just like boarding an enemy ship at sea.  They saw to each other’s wounds and waited for the next engagement.

“What next?” Frankie asked Betty under his breath.

“We stand and watch,” she replied just as quietly.

Frankie nodded.  “For the next wave,” he said with a glint in his eye.

~~~

To the south of the castle, Willoughby and his companions were engaged in a battle with a small force of well-trained soldiers.

“Trained assassins, more like,” he gasped as he leapt high over yet another skilled knifeman, twisting in mid-air to land a blow on the back of his neck.  The neck wasn’t there; the soldier had anticipated his move.  Willoughby rolled over twice to fool the assassin, who had lunged for the spot where he anticipated Willoughby would land.  Willoughby stuck both his own knifes in the shoulders of his opponent, but struck the shoulder blades instead of the crippling space between the bones and the neck and his knives glanced off, tearing flesh instead.  Pulling the knives clear, he leapt over to the other side of the dry river bed between the steep hills, sticking one in the gut of the person fighting Arthur, and whirling one hundred and eighty degrees to repeat the move with Cleo’s opponent.  Both his companions wasted no time in thanks, but jumped to one side to avoid the onslaught of four more soldiers, then Cleo cartwheeled to a spot behind Willoughby to kick another assailant out of balance.  Clumsily, he fell straight onto Arthur’s sword.

Pull back, Willoughby thought to his team, and supported it with three short, sharp whistles for those who didn’t hear thought messages. “To me!” the signal meant.

He scampered straight up the almost sheer hill on the east side, stopping only when over the crest and under the shelter of a worn earth hollow.  Five companions slid into the hollow beside him.

“Where are the others?” Willoughby whispered urgently.

“Daniel and Miriam are down,” murmured Cleo, shocked at their demise now that the heat of battle was waning.

“So are Henry and Grant,” said one of the others.

“Orville was bleeding badly, I told him to stay put,” said another.

“That leaves Gray and Edwin,” said Willoughby, looking towards the sky, assessing the situation. “What about you?”

Scratches, cuts, bruises, a deep wound over the ribs in Wright’s case and mangled fingers for Wilbur, seemed to be the score for the remainder of the ambush party.  We have paid dearly for this one, thought Willoughby.  “Stay here!”” he whispered.

He moved fast over the grass, keeping to the contour until he rounded the end of the hill and could see where a spring burst from the ground at the end of  their ambush site.  Twelve shadowy shapes continued their journey towards Castle White Horse along the stream.

I underestimated their strength and power, he thought, but we still did well to halve their number.

He returned to his team and told them so.  “You did well, despite our losses.”

Could just six of his take on the remaining twelve closer to the castle, he wondered.  Twelve of his had taken on their thirty. Thirteen, counting himself.  He hesitated, thinking that his team had a hard fight and there were other targets they could aim for.

“Well,” he said in a low voice, “now they think we’ve gone, we’d better surprise them again.  There’s no-one better than us to take these chaps out, what do you say?”

“Aye” and “yes” came from his five companions. So they crept out of the hollow and along the path Willoughby had trodden to check on their enemies.  Even the wounded brothers Wright and Wilbur slipped along as silently as ghosts as they ran parallel to the valley, just over the crest of the hill so they couldn’t be seen against the sky.

Willoughby sent his senses ahead of him, trying to identify a good place to jump them again.  Nowhere near as good as their last fighting spot, but just before the road was a nice spot.  Now they had to get there first.  He increased their pace.

~~~

All hell had broken loose in the community of White Horse that spread higgledy piggledy out from the castle gates.  Scores of fighters from Castle Forest had emerged from the hay wagons that had parked in the market square earlier in the day.  Harrison had checked them personally, even probing the hay with his sword to ensure nothing was hidden in them.  How had they got there? Had they been concealed in a secret compartment?

The fighters had rampaged through the village, overpowering the local volunteer force as if they were nothing. Seeing the danger from his position high on the castle ramparts, Diesel had called on the 4th Regiment of Foot, stationed at White Horse purely for bureaucratic reasons, to rise up in the defence of the civilians, and their commander had acquiesced to his authority. Now the soldiers marched through the village, apprehending Forest fighters who saw their superior numbers, fighting with those that didn’t.  The fires were still being started, though, and the market place was ablaze, since the hay wagons had provided an ideal initial conflagration, and loose hay was forked by some fighters into houses just off the square.  Screams of the occupants suggested some were trapped.  The 4th were hard pressed to deal with rescue, fire-fighting and combat all at once.  Given the choice, rescue and combat preceded fire-fighting, but all too often the need to defend themselves from the enemy overtook rescue.  Even with their numbers, they were losing the battle to save the community from destruction.

Diesel stood on the ramparts.  At his side stood Prince Colin, a small chap with fuzzy red hair and a strangely silky voice.  Both were aghast at the spectacle below.  Even the explosion during the Narrathon hadn’t prepared them for such carnage.

“I had better report to the King,” said Colin.

“Keep him below,” said Diesel, “there’s no telling what might arrive up here yet.  Make sure he wears the darn garlic!”

Colin hesitated at the top of the stairs. “Could we ask the 5th to come over and defend the southern road, do you think?”

Diesel sighed.  “We might as well, we’re going to be in enough trouble for using the 4th. Will you send a messenger?”

“Their commander will probably need more than a messenger. I’ll brief the king then go myself.”

“Is that wise?”

“The commander of the 5th will need royalty, I think, not even you would do for him.  Have you got a couple of guards to go with me?”

“They’ll be at the gate waiting for you.”

Prince Colin went down the stairs.  Diesel mused on who to send with him, and scanned the guards on the ramparts.

“Harrison!” he called.  A guard in the adjacent tower turned, waved, and left his post.  A few moments later the giant Harrison stood in front of Diesel.

“Prince Colin will be going out to talk to the 5th Regiment of Foot.  I need you to accompany him.  Take two reliable guards with you.  Make sure you wear your garlic.  One person will need to remain outside the camp, alert to action from the south.  Once the 5th is in action, make sure Prince Colin is safely escorted back here.”

“Yes, sir.  And if Prince Colin doesn’t wish to come back here, make sure he is safe, sir,” Harrison added.

“Exactly.”

Harrison saluted, turned on his heels smartly, and left.

Humphrey hunkered down by the wall, hugging it closely so he wasn’t in the way of anyone hurrying past.  His hearing was assaulted on all sides and at most distances. North, south, east and west.  West only as far as the cursus, where there seemed to be a lot of fighting and yelling going on.  North had gone quiet again, although he thought he’d heard some fighting earlier.  He was spooked by the silence from the area he identified as the dell where they’d been ambushed so long ago.  It was too silent, almost a black hole in the middle of a picture painted in shades of dark grey.  He heard some rustling like those creatures that had attacked them on that night, the ones he’d called vampires, but that was farther away. The rustling was coming closer though.

The east was an agony of noise.  The fire in the village was like nothing he’d ever heard before, a cacophony of sound. His heart was torn by the screams of those trapped. The cries of those wounded in the battle were nothing compared with it. People pleaded for mercy, begged for help for their families.  Men called to people to jump and he didn’t know whether they had, and were saved, or not.  He tried to turn his hearing away, but it was like a magnet pulling him back. He felt sick with the horror of it.  Even when he tried to go further, push his hearing beyond, to where the armies would be coming from Forest and Deeping, he felt everything was muffled by the sound of the village.  He knew the armies were coming though.

The south was confusing.  There were isolated skirmishes directly to the south.  He thought he’d heard Willoughby talking to his men, something about losses and surprising them again. One of the armies was coming up the road from the south-east.  From east to south-east there were three streams of tramp, tramp, tramp as feet stepped in unison to an invisible beat.

Curled up in fear and misery, Humphrey found himself working out in which direction it would be best to run away.

Go to Chapter 19

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