He looked back along the road. Nemain, bent like a bow, labored to drag the ass back to the trail. Her thin wrists shone white as her grandmother's where they emerged from the too-big sleeves; her hands, lost in their woolen gloves, hauled desperately at the rope. Farther back he could see Jack Brown holding the mare's bridle and stroking her neck. But Molly, up on the main wagon's seat, sat leaning sideways with a taut searching scrutiny, her handsome head flung up, her nostrils flared.
Hob stared at her. He had never seen her so alarmed, not even that terrible night when the false pilgrims had rolled out from their cloaks by the fire, cudgels in their fists, robbery and worse in their hearts. The shawl had slipped back to her shoulders and her heavy mass of hair, water-gray with gleams of ice-silver in it, streamed back from her ruddy face, stiff in the slight breeze as though in the moments before a lightning storm.
The breeze spoke in the creaking trees, but nothing else. The snow was all but stopped. Molly turned forward. Her blue eyes, wide set and a little prominent, skimmed over Hob. She made a brushing motion with a gloved hand to set Hob moving, and turned back in the seat. "Away on, away on," she called over her shoulder in a low thrumming voice. It was one of her signals: that tone, and the twice-spoken command, meant everyone was to go quickly but make the least noise. Had she said it three times Hob would have left the ox and pelted off into the woods like a deer, snarl or no. Oh, she had them trained.
The wagons started up, the beasts weaving like drunkards from side to side as they tried to slew off into the woods where they sought concealment and safety, and the drivers pushed and pulled them back onto the middle of the track. There followed a lurching hustle through a gray-white nightmare.
Hob was later unsure of their passage through the forest valley. Blur, was what he thought, Blur, cold, afraid, near to pissed my braies, in after days, when he tried to remember. There was a sense of pressure on them all the time, like mice at the foot of the owl's tree, as they hurried along the road that sank to the ford, then through the shallow ice-rimmed stream, Hob splashing shin-deep in the bitter current but too frightened to curse, and up the farther slope.
After what seemed a very long time the road gained the low swells of the foothills, and here came one of the few moments Hob could recall clearly afterward. A spur of black basalt ran down to the road and forced it to curve around the base. The rock loomed beside the track, twice as high as the wagons. As the ox came up to the bend, Hob hauled back on the lead rope. The corner he must turn seemed to radiate a silent malevolence.
Molly set the brake, reached back into the wagon, and produced a sturdy hazel staff. She climbed swiftly down. She strode forward past the shivering ox, and Hob took a pace back, expecting to be chastised; but she passed him by and strode up to the very lip of the shadow cast by the outcrop, and now here came Jack Brown, the long hammer used on tent pegs in his knotty fist. He had seized in haste what was nearest the wagon door. The lump of iron at the tip of the three-foot shaft was half the size of Hob's head, and Jack's forearm was bunched with the effort. With his ungainly rolling walk, his back broad as a hall door, he seemed a kind of troll himself, but Hob was glad to see him between the wagons and that sinister rock.
Molly's palm showed pale in the gloom: she had flung her arm out sideways to halt Jack's approach. She stood as though breathing in the forest mist, her heavy body up on tiptoe, the hazel staff thrust in the ground before her. All at once she rocked back on her heels and shouldered the staff. She motioned Jack forward.
The dark man shambled forward past the rock, making Hob think bear for some reason. Molly called Jack artan sometimes; Nemain had told Hob it meant "little bear" in the tongue she and her grandmother spoke to each other. The hammer looked hungry or thirsty, weaving from side to side like a snake over a dish of milk. Just past the bend, just within sight, Jack stopped still.
Excerpted from Something Red by Douglas Nicholas. Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Nicholas. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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