The Way West #19

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 19: The End of the Beginning

In which Humphrey does some soul-searching and then some heavy listening

The noon bell rang.  The King had said it would be the first bell of the day since all had fought so hard during the night.  Humphrey looked out of the window onto the sunlit courtyard below.  Castle White Horse looked normal, if subdued.  Beyond its walls was carnage.  Nothing was left of the spectator area on the cursus and nothing of the volunteer force either, except for bodies which were being attended to by the people who had sheltered in the Great Hall. Even at this hour, vapour showed the breaths of the people out in the cold air.

The village was largely burnt to the ground.  Blackened posts stood like skeletons to show where dwellings had been.  The survivors had taken refuge in the castle, mostly with friends or acquaintances, although some had settled in the Great Hall. After a fitful sleep, few people were talking.  Most stared with dull eyes into space.

In the light of day, Humphrey considered his thoughts last night.  Was he a coward? He had done nothing to help his friends. He had done even less to help Winston, Bertie and Glory.  He had run away from them. He had listened, as he had been asked, but it had been worthless.  He couldn’t hear his three team-mates; he hadn’t heard anything useful during the battle; he was blocked completely from hearing things in useful places. With exquisite timing, his self-centred torture was halted by a knock on the door.  A brown nose poked its way through, followed by some dark eyes.

“We all question ourselves, Humphrey.  You did your duty,” said Willoughby.

“It wasn’t much.”

“It was what you had been charged with,” said Willoughby, coming fully into the room, which evoked a gasp from Humphrey as he saw the white patches where his coat had been damaged stained with almost washed-off blood from his latest battle. “This will heal just fine,” he added. “And it doesn’t even hurt.  Mind you, the salve that Betty advised the medics to use is even better than the ones they had been using.”

“Do you ever get depressed?” asked Humphrey.

“Depressed, no.  Downhearted, dejected, disappointed, delusional even, yes, of course.  But I have a purpose and I know what I’m doing most of the time.  You, I guess, are still unsure of your purpose in life.” Humphrey nodded.

“What I feel bad about,” Willoughby continued, “was losing those fine chaps I took with me to the south.  I underestimated the opposition.  Of course they were only a small force – they were exceptionally skilled fighters! I shouldn’t have underestimated the opposition like that.”

“Did you lose them all?” Humphrey asked wide-eyed.

“I brought Cleo, Wilbur and Wright back in one piece, more or less.  Three out of twelve is appalling.  And I wouldn’t have done that had it not for the other chaps thinking it was a bit more expensive than they’d bargained for.”

“How do you mean?”

“When we jumped them again I realised I knew some of them, and fortunately they realised it was me.  We bowed and they left.  It helped the odds a little, but I still lost Arthur and Patrick to the others.  We got Orville home though, which was something. I hope they can save his leg,” Willoughby seemed to be reassuring himself as much as telling Humphrey.

“I thought about running away,” confessed Humphrey.

“Sensible person,” Willoughby said, to Humphrey’s relieved surprise.  “We are all lucky the 5th Regiment held the roads last night, although I think if the 4th hadn’t been told to abandon their attempt to save the village and reinforce them we would have had a heck of a time here in the castle.  Anyone whose home isn’t here would consider running away if they had any sense.

“But you stayed at your post.  That shows bravery, Humphrey, not cowardice.  It’s all right for people who aren’t scared to seem brave, but real bravery is shown by the people who carry on and do difficult things despite their fear.”

Humphrey considered those words.  He’d read something like them somewhere, he thought, but he hadn’t thought to look for them.  Maybe there would be more words of comfort in his books if he looked.  He lifted his head and smiled at Willoughby.

“That’s better,” his mentor said. “How about breakfast?  I’m starving.”

~~~

By evening, things had settled back into something resembling normality in the castle.  The medical facilities were overwhelmed and the hostel had become a recovery ward.  Visitors were in the Great Hall or with friends, villagers with friends, acquaintances or in rooms to which their occupants had not returned.  Willoughby had moved in with Humphrey.  He had stayed close all afternoon, getting Humphrey to tell him what he had heard, and exploring the reasons for some of the more mysterious events, such as the ‘black hole’.  Willoughby had not had an explanation, but said he knew someone that might.  They returned to the room and found her there.

“Betty!” said a delighted Humphrey, and she seemed equally pleased to see him.

They talked about the night’s events briefly, and Humphrey learned she’d been in the ambush party in the dell.

“Why couldn’t I hear you?” Humphrey asked.

“I have no idea,” she said.  “It’s strange isn’t it?  When we were under the hill you couldn’t hear inside, and when I came out the other night to send you a message you could hear me.  It’s like someone is blocking you.”

“Someone who was under the hill and in the ambush party, you mean?” asked Willoughby.  Betty nodded. “Well, that could be any of the pirates.”

“Or me or Hywel,” Betty added.

“What about Freya?” Humphrey asked.

“She left the hill with us, but we’d not been on the way long before I realised she wasn’t with us. I didn’t see her go,” said Betty.

“Where is Hwyel, and the pirates?” added Humphrey.

“I think they were going to camp on the cursus, or find somewhere else,” Betty said.  “They didn’t want to come into the castle.  I think Hywel’s been recruited by them, he certainly seems to get on with them now.”

“You did a good job on the party coming down that road,” said Willoughby. “Thanks.”

“No problem.  I think the pirates were disappointed they didn’t have another group to carve up.  They are quite easy to be with, really, but they like a good fight.”

Humphrey was frowning again.  Willoughby noticed.  “What’s up?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing really,” and laughed as his stomach gurgled, “except that it’s probably time for tea!”

They all laughed and went down to the upper dining hall.  Humphrey was relieved as he had been frowning about something else entirely.  He could hear some of the pirates on the cursus joking about the weaklings in the tents again, and he gathered they meant Hywel and some of the other previously wounded pirates.  He couldn’t hear Hywel and his companions at all.  The black hole had moved. But then, he couldn’t hear Betty’s thoughts either.  She was blocking those from him herself.

~~~

“This is not what we agreed when we discussed the attachment of the 4th and 5th Western Regiments of Foot to White Horse,” said Major Robert of the Combined Armed Services.

“We agreed to make appropriate use of them in keeping the peace, protecting communities and maintaining law and order,” replied Prince Colin. “That is all we are doing.”

“We did think it fit to advise the General, Major Robert, precisely so that our intentions would not be misconstrued.  We have enough trouble at present without upsetting the army,” Diesel pointed out.

Major Robert pursed his lips and looked at the king.  “Your Majesty…,” he started.

“We realise this was not your vision, Major Robert,” interrupted King Benson, sitting between his chief advisers opposite the military person, “but you must see that the situation here warrants their use in this way. Keeping the peace – preventing our neighbouring castles from unwarranted attacks on us; protecting communities – our communities have suffered from pirate raids and now this wanton destruction wrought by the neighbouring castles; maintaining law and order – freeing innocent people who have been maltreated and incarcerated in their dungeons.  What better use could one make of the 4th and 5th regiments?”

“Furthermore, Major,” added Prince Colin, “we thought fit to apprise you of the situation so that you could be an observer.”

The Major looked away.  He was so angry he would have stormed out of the castle, taking the regiments with him, had it not been for some concerns Prince Lupin of Buckmore had shared with him and the evidence of his own eyes.  Lupin had sent his Narrator to investigate, and his Narrator had been blown up.  When White Horse had advised the General of their use of the 4th and 5th the previous night, the General had nearly exploded.  Robert had ridden all the way here with hardly a break.  Were White Horse really the innocent parties here, he wondered.  On his surprise visit two months ago to Castle Deeping he had been well received by Lord Colman, even though he had arrived in the middle of a formal visit by Lord Smallweed of Vexstein. Deeping always impressed him with their organisation.  Lord Smallweed obviously thought so too.  Now White Horse were accusing Deeping of serious crimes. Was this simply inter-castle rivalry that had got out of hand?  Surely it should not call for the use of the troops that he had stationed there, really for convenience since there was ample space and it was a handy location. Was it really a small fire that had got out of hand that had caused such destruction, and the finger of blame pointed at a difficult neighbour?

King Benson wondered whether he should say anything about the marauding vampires and werewolves in the vicinity.  They were now confirmed as a serious threat, thanks to the intelligence gathered by the new elite squad that had given them warning of the attacks.  He didn’t really want to reveal the existence of any elite squads, though.  Especially since the one in question had lost three-quarters of its personnel in the mission.  Not a good advertisement, really.

Humphrey stood outside the door, waiting and listening.  Willoughby had briefed him on both his roles this night: locate his team and the imprisoned outcasts when he reached Forest with the 4th regiment, and ensure Major Robert saw everything that the 4th did, and nothing that any elite squads did.  Willoughby had advised him to let others do the fighting, just stick with Major Robert once he had given the locations to the troops.  Humphrey was still considering that. If he needed to rescue his team, or anyone else he knew, he thought he would want to fight.  He was still not sure how, though.

“Major Robert,” said King Benson, standing up, which meant everyone else stood up too and Humphrey heard the chairs grating on the floor as they did so, “the time has come for our soldiers to depart.  Will you come as an observer? Please?”

Humphrey heard the Major sigh, and steps approach the door.  It opened; Diesel showed the Major out and accompanied him to the inner courtyard.  Humphrey followed.

~~~

Humphrey followed Major Robert all the way to Castle Forest.  When the two army units went their different ways, he explained to the Major that the 4th were going there to rescue the imprisoned people.

“Who are these people?” Major Robert asked in an exasperated tone.

Humphrey did not think he should answer but when the Major continued to question the whole purpose of the mission, Humphrey said “They were rounded up and hurt nearly two weeks ago.  Others were captured a month before that.”

“Homeless people, I suppose?”

“Yes,” Humphrey said, but felt forced to add, “they found a home, but something drove them out.  Something evil.”

Robert sighed.  “Not vampires, I hope,” he said gloomily.

Humphrey said nothing.  He was busy listening.

They reached a small hill overlooking the Castle.  It was conveniently bare of trees, but even in summer it would make a good viewing point.  Now they had no trouble seeing the troops move into position through the bare branches, despite the darkness of the night.  A glow lit the undersides of the clouds due to the lights inside the castle.

One of the other newly-trained teams was with this part of the attack; the other had gone to Castle Deeping.  A team member came over to him.

“Well?” he asked in a low voice.

“The dungeons are on the lower right hand side as we look at them.  Some people must have died since we were last here, there are fewer of them.  I haven’t located my team yet.” Humphrey tried to keep the last part out of Major Robert’s hearing.  The other team person slipped away like a shadow.

Humphrey was trying so hard to find Winston, Bertie and Glory that he was getting hot.

“Are you all right?” asked Robert.

“Yes, sir,” murmured Humphrey, concentrating hard. He knew he was being blocked, he could feel Glory sending him thoughts but they kept slipping past him.  He tried locating the block, then broke off suddenly as he realised two things.  His three colleagues were not in Forest but in Castle Deeping, and the owner of the block was trying to locate him. He pancaked onto the ground, much to Robert’s surprise, and felt the searching thought slide above him like a flying dagger.  He couldn’t help but react with a furious thought pulse back along the path of the dagger.

Something happened: he could hear Glory and the others.  Who was with the party approaching Deeping?  Who could he reach to tell them? His mind reached out and fingered Deep Voice.  Diesel!  He planted a picture of the three in a deep dungeon, guarded by… he couldn’t work out what it was, but he left the feeling of urgent and danger, and hoped it would suffice.

Miles away over the winter landscape he heard Diesel say out loud “We have located our missing three, but they are here, not at Forest.  Warn the 5th there is something extremely nasty in the lower dungeons, probably something that bites.”

Humphrey relaxed and concentrated on the scene in front of him.  The Major looked at him, carefully considering his behaviour.

“What’s happening at Deeping, Humphrey?” he asked lightly.

“The 5th are entering the dungeons, sire,” he said, then realised he’d been trapped.

“Sounds like you’d be very useful on my staff, young man, if you ever wish to have a change of scenery.”

Go to Chapter 20

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