The Way West #23

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 23: Long Road to Longmoor

In which Humphrey discovers the secret of the black hole

The carriage rolled up the road past the devastation of Castle Forest.  Humphrey sat beside the driver listening for black holes and rustling noises, which was quite difficult since the rattling of the coach and the clattering of the wheels on the icy stones tended to mask everything.  Glory was inside with Major Robert, Chester, Shel and Harrison.  Bertie and Winston were on the carriage’s roof.  The Major’s horse was hitched to the back and seemed the least concerned of the party.  All hoped it was going to be an uneventful journey.  It was only two more hours to Camp Longmoor, the army headquarters.

The starlight made the snow glow blue against the black sky.  It had settled, although it wasn’t deep, and was no problem for the driver.  The crescent moon was heading towards moonset in the west, a couple more days to the first quarter, Humphrey thought.  Last time he’d seen it this thin he was still a newcomer to the exiles under the hill.  So much had happened since then.

Diesel had impressed on the team the importance of getting Major Robert, the papers he carried, and Chester and Shel in one piece to Camp Longmoor.  Chester and Shel were both vital witnesses and evidence of Forest’s and Deeping’s brutality.  There had been discussion of a larger force to defend them, but this would make the journey slower.  They would be much more easily attacked.  Diesel was relying on other talents to see them through.  The team was nervous.  Glory had her knives, Winston his sword, Bertie and Humphrey their wits.  The major had his sword and a small gun, Harrison his sword and a wicked looking knife.  Chester and Shel had also been armed, and they had chosen knives as well.

The coach slowed to go up an incline.  The team jumped down from the carriage to lighten the load for the horses and also to stretch their legs.  No-one could hear anything untoward and the road ahead looked clear. Nobody could relax, though.

Another hour went by.  The moon was long gone and clouds filtered the stars.  The main road went into a tunnel as they approached the next hill, but the carriage took the side road up it.  Humphrey asked the driver about the tunnel.

“That’s the main route to Vexstein,” he said.  “Goes by way of the Inn of the Seventh Happiness and then the Prancing Pony.  Mighty long way.”

Humphrey imagined the black shapes covering the hills to be the forest where he thought he’d spend the winter before he was driven out.  It must be in that general direction.

They crested the hill and could see a long white line stretching ahead of them.  The road, covered in snow, showed up even in the dark night.

“Why is the road so straight?” asked Humphrey.

“Always has been,” replied the driver.

Humphrey searched his personal library and found something about ancient beings that had built cities and joined them with straight roads.

“Psst, Humphrey,” called Bertie from the top of the carriage.  “What’s that shadow moving on the fields on the left?”

Humphrey started.  He’d been so busy reading he’d forgotten to listen.

“Oh,” he said, recognising the black hole and feeling guilty. “It could be trouble.”

He spread his listening wider and located the other sound he dreaded: the rustling of an unnatural army.

“There’s even more trouble up ahead on the right,” he called up to Winston and Bertie. “If I’m right, we are about to be caught between something I don’t like but don’t know what it is, and what I think is a troop of vampires.”

“Oh, heck,” replied Winston, with excellent understatement.

“What shall I do, then?” asked the driver.

“Keep going,” said Winston, leaning over the front so he could talk more easily.  “Whatever happens, get the people inside to Camp Longmoor.”

“We have to go through a wood about a mile ahead,” said the driver.  “It goes down into a dip, then comes up again and out of the wood.”

“Sounds like a great place for an ambush,” said Winston.  He leant over the side of the carriage, putting his head through the window, and told the occupants he was coming in.  He swung himself inside and Humphrey could hear him briefing the others.  He climbed back out again.

“Harrison reminds us all to wear our garlic,” he said.  The driver patted his garlic garland and Humphrey fingered his.  He hated the smell, but had worn it as instructed.  Bertie hated the smell and wore his round his waist, so he could use his nose.

“The major suggested we four, and maybe Harrison too, leap from the carriage at the bottom and run up beside it.  If the enemy attacks, we take them on, and the carriage goes hell for leather up the road.  We can catch them up as and when.”

Humphrey and Bertie both smiled at Winston as he finished this. ‘As and when’ sounded more like ‘if we survive’.

Bertie shrugged.  “Fine by me,” he said.

Humphrey nodded.

“The vampire troop are heading for that wood, if it’s on the other side of this rise,” he said.  “The black hole is running parallel to them on the other side.”

“Not long now, then,” said Winston and he lay flat on the carriage roof, watching.

As predicted, the road led into a wood clustered around a stream that crossed the road at the bottom of the hill.  As they forded the stream the team jumped off, and the vampire troop rushed at them from the cover of the bushes bordering the road.  Glory’s knives whirled, slicing vampires left, right and centre.  Winston’s sword work would have earned the praise of any swordmaster.  He laid his opponents flat with slash after slash and thrust after parry.  Bertie ducked and dodged as swords flew at him, diving under fallen trees and using his sense of smell to find narrow tracks that impeded his opponents.  He was leading them a merry dance, but he was vulnerable.

Humphrey heard part of the troop head up the hill to follow the carriage, so he went too, picking up one of Glory’s silver knives from the ground, hoping he’d be able to impede them in some unknown way.  A shot rang out at the edge of the wood where the carriage emerged onto open countryside again.  They had made a fast getaway, but vampires had unnatural speed.  Humphrey ignored the vampires around him and raced up the hill, to see the dreaded black hole turn into a shadowy mass of people armed with cutlasses and knives.  They swarmed over the carriage, driving back the vampires, and chasing them off onto the fields.  A small group headed back along the road into the wood, towards Humphrey.  He stood his ground and held his knife out in front of him.  He saw their eyes, bloodthirsty and bloodshot, closer and closer till they were upon him – and he shut his own.

The wave of fighters rushed past him, rocking him and buffeting him with their speed.  He opened his eyes again and turned.  They were fighting alongside Winston and Glory at the ford. The vampires fell back.  The newcomers pressed on.  After maybe five minutes of vicious fighting, the vampires fled.

Winston and Glory joined Humphrey and watched as the vampire troop ran away through the trees.  “Let’s see if we can catch up the carriage,” Winston said.

“Where’s Bertie?” Glory asked.

“He started off in this direction,” said Humphrey, pointing up the hill, so they trotted up it, listening and watching for any sign of movement.  The black hole fighters seemed intent on chasing the vampires for miles.  He could hear them still as they travelled across the fields and rough ground.  It reminded him of the chase in which he’d first met Hywel, Betty and Freya.

The carriage was at a standstill a little way along the road.  They panicked, seeing the major standing outside it, talking to a stranger.  Humphrey ran along the road while Winston and Glory ran over the fields, swinging round to approach from the sides.

“No need to worry, chaps,” called Major Robert as he saw them.  They steadied their pace and joined him.  “This young female has been explaining everything to me.  I think we can get in and get on our way again now.  Would you like to join us?” he said to the female.

She nodded, and turned round so that Humphrey could see her in the reflected light from the snow.

“Hello, Humphrey,” she said. “You have come on.”

Humphrey didn’t know what to say.  But then, he thought, he often didn’t know what to say to Freya.

~~~

Major Robert had taken the papers, Chester and Shel to see the General.  From what Humphrey heard, he wasn’t best pleased at being got out of bed after midnight, but once he’d read the papers and had a brief word with Chester about his experiences at Forest and Deeping, he’d agreed the situation warranted it.

Freya had explained to the Major in the carriage that the pirates she’d been with had come from the Sarsen hill and wanted nothing better than to annihilate the vampires who had caused them so much grief.  She declined to explain why that was the case, but once they’d reached the safety of Camp Longmoor and the Major had gone about his own business she was more amenable to Humphrey’s questioning.

Before they’d left though, they’d searched for Bertie.  It hadn’t taken much to find him, since both Glory and Humphrey could hear him, limping through the snow to reach the carriage.  He’d been bitten, quite badly, about the neck, and they had carried him to the carriage and brought him with them.  He was now in sickbay.

Freya sat opposite Humphrey, Winston, Glory and Harrison as each nursed a hot drink by a warming fire.  “The question is whether he was bitten in error by the pirates or whether it was a vampire that got him,” she said in a matter of fact tone.

“Why would the pirates bite him like that?” asked Harrison.

“Well, they have always tended to use their teeth as well as their swords, but this group all got bitten by someone else once, and banded together.  When I saw how many were sick after that skirmish we had in the lane on the way back from the market I thought that was why.  I realised that Hywel had been bitten,” she said, looking at Humphrey. “There’s nothing you can do once it’s happened.”

“Do you mean… Bertie …?” said Winston, unable to frame the words.

“If the pirates thought he was a vampire and they attacked him, yes, he’ll become a werewolf like them.  He is one now, in fact.”

“You mean Hywel is a werewolf, too?” asked Humphrey.  Freya nodded.  “But I thought they turned into wolves at the full moon.  I’ve never seen him do that.”

“We were under the hill at the last full moon, we all were,” said Freya.  “Next full moon is more than a week away yet.”

Glory shuddered.  “Will Bertie live a full life? I mean… well, I don’t know what I mean.”

“It depends on him, what he wants to do,” said Freya.  “Plenty of werewolves live happy productive lives in the community.  You’d be surprised.  It just makes full moons a bit tricky, avoiding them.”

Realisation suddenly dawned for Humphrey.  “Hywel is a werewolf,” he stated.  Freya nodded.  “And I can’t hear werewolves.  Which is why it was like a black hole!”

“I can’t help you there, Humphrey, but if you say so.”

“Um, Freya,” said Glory slowly, and stopped.  She looked at Freya and Freya looked steadily back at her. Then Freya looked amused and Glory dropped her head.  “OK,” said Glory.

Winston looked at the pair of them and shook his head.  “So if Bertie gets better, will he still be part of the team or will he have to join a gang of werewolves?”

“You’ll have to ask him that,” she said.

They each dropped their heads, looking into their mugs, whether they had anything left in them or not.  There was a lot to think about.

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