The Way West #21

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 21: Evidence and Conjecture

In which Humphrey finds both old friends and new friends in deadly danger

The elite squads gained entry to the second level of Castle Deeping and opened the gates for the 5th Regiment, who streamed through, reinforced by the remains of the 4th, newly arrived from Castle Forest.  Many of those had signs of the explosions about their persons, but at least they weren’t nursing broken bones or worse like some of their colleagues.

Lord Colman’s army retreated to the thirdlevel and reinforced the gates in the wall.  Watching from across the river, Lord Diesel thought this could go on forever.  Deeping was designed to withstand sieges.  He and King Benson wanted to teach Lord Colman a lesson, not defeat him.  He told Major Robert as much, withholding one vital piece of information.

“Well, I think you have made your point to him,” Robert said. “If I could have seen the wounded prisoners at Forest, it would have proved your point about them, but I really need to interview some of them to support your allegations.  Otherwise, all I have seen is two attacks, one of which had a suspicious response from the defenders.”

“You need to see the prisoners here, then,” checked Diesel.

Robert inclined his head in agreement.

Diesel sighed.  How could he get Major Robert to witness Colman’s depravity?  As far as he knew, the dungeons were at ground level, but only accessible from the third tier.

There was a rustling as a soldier pushed through the branches behind them, stopped and coughed.  Diesel turned.

“’Scuse me, your honours,” said a soldier from the 4th with a broken arm strapped to his side.  “This ‘ere chappie says he knows you.”

“He does, thank you, soldier.  Well done,” said Diesel, as he dismissed the soldier and beckoned Humphrey forward.  “Can you hear me?  The reports were you’d been injured.”

“You’re fuzzy, sir, but thinking is clear.  I can hear in the distance fine now.”

Diesel’s face lit up.  He sent three thoughts to Humphrey, and one spoken request.

Humphrey replied: Willoughby is inside.  I think Betty may be on Colman’s side.  He’s in his chambers, but I can’t listen to him now – he knows when I do. The three are held in the tower above the river. “I think I can get you inside to the dungeons if you follow me.”

Diesel looked at Robert.  “Lead on,” he said, and Robert nodded.

Humphrey pottered down the hillside and across the icy ford, followed by Diesel, Robert and a couple of men.  They edged along the riverbank towards the gorge and the sheer castle walls, avoiding the main road into the castle.  Just before they entered the shadow of the gorge Humphrey stopped and looked back.

“The fighters I can’t read are moving closer,” he said.

Diesel told one of the soldiers to return to their base with a warning of a possible attack from the rear.

As they got to the castle walls, Robert thought he heard Humphrey mutter under his breath; “We need to get to the prisoners in the dungeons.”  A few steps further on, Humphrey tripped over a stone and fell against the wall, which swung open to reveal a secret passage.

They entered a narrow tunnel, slippery with water and smooth stone.  They pressed on, feeling a need for urgency at this late stage of the attack.  Humphrey ignored some side tunnels, and confidently made choices when the tunnel forked, which was often.

“A regular rabbit warren under this castle,” muttered Robert.

“It’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse,” added Diesel.

Humphrey came to a standstill.  “Is there anyone in particular you want to see?” he asked.  “The people from under the hill, the ones who were fit enough to leave Forest, are a little further on.  People on the other side of this wall have been here a long time.”

“How long?” asked Robert.

“They don’t remember,” said Humphrey after a pause.  “Their lord put them here because they could hear him.”

“As they can talk to you, you mean?” asked Diesel.

“Yes.”

“Can their lord hear you?” Diesel asked, suddenly understanding what Humphrey was talking about, and worried in case he’d been led into a trap.

“Not now.”

He said no more and Diesel decided to get a better explanation later.  Diesel suspected that Humphrey now knew much more about blocking and unblocking thoughts than he’d ever known.

“Let’s go to the ones that were fit enough to leave Forest, please, Humphrey,” said Robert, and they moved on a short way and went down a level.

“Here,” said Humphrey.  “Stand back.”

He pressed on the side of the tunnel and a panel swung open, just as it had in White Horse when they went to have breakfast.  A dark dungeon was displayed in the glimmer of a light through a barred window in the door opposite.

Six persons were there, three on a bench on one side, the others on the floor.  One of the bench people stood up, as did the one on the floor in front of them.

“I’m Humphrey,” said Humphrey.

“Humphrey?” croaked one of the seated people. “Not the Humphrey who went with Freya?”

“Yes,” he said. “Is Freya here?”

“Thank you, Humphrey,” said Major Robert, stepping past him and over another person on the floor. “My name is Robert, Major of the Combined Armed Services, here as an observer for the General of the Western Marches.  Who are each of you, what are you doing here, and how long have you been here.  And do any of you need medical attention?” he added.

“Nobody’s badly injured, but we are all weak and recovering from torture of various kinds,” said the one who spoke to Humphrey.  “My name is Chester.  I led a number of exiles from Vexstein; that changed as people joined us from other places, till we ended up with a community that lived under the hill at Sarsen.  We had to abandon the hill a short while ago because of a terror that came to dwell there.  We left in three groups,” he started coughing and a female beside him held his shoulders till he could get his breath again.  He waved at her as if to carry on.

“We left in three groups,” she said.  “One to Forest, one to White Horse and one to Deeping, even thought we knew they didn’t welcome exiles.   We were desperate.  We sent most of our best fighters to Deeping, hoping they’d be useful so they could stay.”

“You are…?” asked Robert.

“Shel.  I left… well, I left the place I was born maybe ten years ago now.  Been with Chester five of them.”

“Go on.”

“Well, we found they didn’t want us.  Neither of them.  They didn’t want us anywhere.  It was them as had been rounding us up, hunting us for sport.  That’s what they do.  For fun.”

“Sir,” Humphrey interrupted. “We need to go!”

“We can’t just go, Humphrey,” Robert said.

“We must.”

“Get into the tunnel, all of you,” said Diesel.  “You first, Major!”

He bundled Major Robert back into the tunnel and virtually manhandled the six prisoners through the gap after him.  He squeezed after them as they heard marching in the corridor on the other side of the dungeon, and the sound of keys in the lock.  Further back along the corridor came a muffled ‘boom’, followed by another, then another.  Humphrey got into the tunnel but the panel was still open.  The series of muffled explosions continued, a few seconds between each, and they were coming closer.

The door to the dungeon opened, something was thrown in.  The door clanged shut.

“Boom,” not far away, the walls shook.

Humphrey picked up what was thrown in, a soft sack with a cord hanging from it. The cord seemed to be fizzing.

“Boom!” Was that next door?

“Pull that damn fuse out!” hissed Diesel, grabbing the cord and doing it himself.  He threw it back into the dungeon where it went out.

“They’re blowing up the prisoners, Major!” he said.

“Boom,” came from next door, the other side of where they were.

“My God,” said Robert.  “And we have to go past them!”  The horror of it sounded in his voice.

“We can go this way,” said Humphrey. “Do you want this?”  He handed the sack of explosive to Diesel, who passed it to the Major.

“Can you six walk?” asked Diesel and, on receiving affirmatives from them, said “Lead on Humphrey, get us out now.”

Humphrey led on, thinking hard and listening for his three team-mates.  He stopped after a while, at a junction.

“You go down there, sirs, the gate is at the bottom.  Just push the wall to open it.”

“Where are you going?” asked Robert.

“I think he needs to complete an earlier assignment,” said Diesel, cottoning on. “Lead on, Major!”

So Major Robert led Lord Diesel and the six prisoners, evidence of persecution, ill-treatment and attempted murder, to safety out on the hills behind Castle Deeping.

~~~

Willoughby’s mission was to lead the elite squad in, and rescue the three lost elite squaddies if he could.  He reckoned he might as well, now he was here.  Trouble was, without having met them, he wasn’t sure he’d recognise their thoughts even if he was close to them. Method, he told himself, and started checking out the floor he was on.

Humphrey had one advantage over Willoughby – he knew which tower his colleagues were held in. He told the castle he needed to get there without being seen by anyone and the castle obligingly opened a hidden panel in one wall to reveal another secret passage to him.

He emerged from the passage behind a tapestry into a corridor.  There was a small stair winding up a narrow tower opposite him.  He looked out of the window on the way up and saw the river in the morning light, far below.  It was a sheer drop to it.  Humphrey hoped he didn’t need to leave by way of a window, as he didn’t think he could wall run and he certainly couldn’t grow wings in time.  He paused, thinking he was well hidden, and listened.  People were close, but not saying anything.  They didn’t even seem to be thinking anything. One of them seemed to be in discomfort, although not actually in pain.

Back down the stair, someone was moving on the corridor.  Two people.  He smiled, then frowned. Betty!  She was walking along the corridor, looking for something, or someone.  She was guarding her thoughts, but the urgency of looking, and her focus, allowed him to recognise her.  A warm glow spread through her.  She had identified the other person further along the corridor.  Humphrey recognised him too – Willoughby.  Betty’s glow came from the pleasure of identifying an enemy she wanted to conquer, Humphrey realised.  He searched his books and came up with another word for it.  Glee.

Humphrey was unsure what to do, warn Willoughby or go to the three. He didn’t want to alert Betty to his presence.  She seemed to have more and more powers; things he didn’t understand.  He remembered someone saying ‘booby traps’ before Castle Forest had blown up, and thought he’d better be careful going up the tower.  He didn’t want to set off any booby traps that would harm Winston, Bertie or Glory.  Or himself.  He spent a few more minutes searching his books for all the references to booby traps in castles that he could find, to prepare himself for looking.  Then he set off, very quietly, up the stairs, keeping right to the outside in case a step was pressure-sensitive in the centre.  He looked for cracks in the stone between the step and the riser that might indicate a false stair.  He watched for knobs or obstructions on the side that might start up hidden devilry if he pressed or nudged them. It was slow going, but he was sure it was worth it.

Near the top he saw a series of cracks between the stairs.  Counting them, he decided he had to leap up three at a time, to reach the landing at the top.  He did so, balancing on a funny coloured stone on the landing, then stepping to another one the same colour.  That brought him right in front of a small arched door.  He looked all round it and thought into the lock.

That’s clever, he thought although he was trying not to, if you turn the key in the lock something nasty will happen.

Humphrey! An immediate response came from the other side of the door. Take care! The door is booby-trapped!

I know, Glory, he thought.  How do I get in?

You press one of the studs.  I don’t know which one. Don’t speak when you come in, we think Lord Colman can hear us.

Humphrey studied the iron strips on the door carefully.  Where they crossed each other they were fixed with an iron stud driven deep into the dense wooden door. He sent his thought over each one in turn until he found one that yielded. Then he checked the others, just to be sure.  He pressed the yielding one.  The door clicked and opened.

Even though Winston was sitting stiffly, locked into a chair facing the door, his head bound with metal and something sticking into his neck, he smiled at Humphrey as he cautiously entered the room. Bertie sat on a bed at one side, curled up and miserable. Glory looked at him anxiously. Can you free him?

Humphrey looked all over the appalling mechanism.  The locks on the arms had a counter mechanism that would release the point into his neck if they were tampered with.  The head band would spring closed, driving spikes into Winston’s face if the point was withdrawn.  There must be a way to undo it.

We haven’t found how, Glory replied, panic rising in her body.

Keep calm.  Humphrey didn’t feel calm himself but it seemed the right thing to say. Did one person set it up?

No, there were three.

And now we are three, he replied grimly.  Point, mask, arms. Two arms.  How could both arms be released at the same time?  Did they need to be?  He thought over them some more.  They definitely needed two people to do each simultaneously.  He smiled.  Hold the point and the mask should stay.  Hold the point with one hand and the mask with the other.

He sent the thought of how it worked to Glory and she nodded. Then she moved to one arm and nodded to Bertie who came down from the bed to the other. “You see how?” she mouthed at him.  He looked at her fingers then placed his own the same.  Then looked up and nodded to her.  Humphrey took a firm hold on the point, and put his hand on the spikes of the mask just in case.

“One, two three,” Glory mouthed, and on three she and Bertie slipped the mechanisms holding the manacles off Winston’s arms, and checked the ones on his feet were free too.  They were.  All had been connected to a sprung bar at the back of the chair.  Humphrey held the point firmly – the spring was very strong though and he stared wide eyed at the two.  Bertie came to his aid and held the head spikes as Humphrey got both hands on the point and forced it back down and snapped it into a catch designed to hold it against the central bar. Glory went round the back and unhooked the bar from the head band and tilted the top of the band back so they could undo the fixing under Winston’s chin.

He relaxed as he came out of it, and Humphrey thought he might pass out.  Glory got him some water from a jug in the corner.

It was dashed from his lips as two figures came whirling into the room, having leapt the last few stairs and missed the landing completely. They leapt and kicked at each other, used their hands in great chopping motions, but leaping out of the way in enormous bounds that defied gravity.  The blows were punishing, but still they came back at each other.  The four team-mates cowered against the wall, almost under the beds.

How do we get out? thought Glory, rolling to one side as a foot was planted squarely on the wall behind her to push off once more.

Down the stairs, I suppose, although there are traps all the way.

There’s a button to press to make them safe, I saw the guards use it, Glory imaged to him, much to Humphrey’s relief. His anxiety returned as he realised that Willoughby and Betty seemed to be fighting to the death. He couldn’t do anything. He had to leave, get his team-mates out.

The four of them crawled to the doorway, and Glory located the safety button.  Humphrey looked back as Willoughby crashed in a shower of broken glass through the window, way out into the air, and started to fall.  Humphrey almost started back to save him, imagining the fall of hundreds of feet to the river below.  Surely he couldn’t recover from that?  Then Betty’s high-pitched laugh, almost a cackle, was cut off with a clang as the force of her kick sent her backwards into Winston’s torture chair.  She hit the bar, the point sprang up and went right through her chest.  She flailed, twitched, and went limp.

Come! Glory thought urgently, and he turned and fled with them down the now rigid stair.

They reached the bottom and Humphrey hurled them into the secret passage opposite.  They ran, and ran, until they were outside once more.  They forded the river and went up the other side, making for the camp Humphrey had left not so long before.  Humphrey briefly looked for a body, broken on the uneven ground between the riverbank and castle wall.  He must have fallen in the river, he thought.  He felt a desolation at his loss, the mentor he had grown to care about, that the rest of the team had never even met.  Willoughby the Narrator.

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