Hob felt the hair on his neck prickling. He held to the bridle rope and stood in the middle of the road, waiting for his life to show him the shape it would take.
But Jack darted forward with the hammer, and came back raising on its tip only a bloody rag, coarse gray cloth torn away at one edge, clotted and caked a reddish black in the center and stained in streaks to the edges. He brought it back to Molly and they stood in the road and considered it like two farmers consulting over a stricken sheep. Molly put a finger to the clabbered mess, raised it to her tongue with a curious delicacy for such an act. Hob turned away and rubbed behind the ox's ear, a favorite spot with the beast.
FATHER ATHELSTAN had grown old; Father Athelstan could no longer keep a young orphan at the priest house. When Molly's caravan had come through a year and a half ago, the bent and shuffling priest had seen a chance to clear himself of his last obligation to the world. From Maeve, come traveling out of Ireland across the Irish Sea, Maeve whom everyone but Jack called Molly, from her he had felt, as the young and the old and the unclever often did, the blunt tide of animal goodness that moved along her bones. The wagons left a few days later with Hob looking back past the high wheels at the tiny chapel, the miserable rutted mud street that ran past the handful of cottages, until that day the whole of Hob's known universe.
Hob, who remembered no parents, who was too old to be mothered and too young for a lover, considered Molly with a confused awe that veered between love and fear. When he fell ill she wrapped him in skins and brought him heated mare's milk and herbs. When, as on this evening, she grew fey and terrible, he could not bring himself to look on her. He stroked the curve of the ox's coarse-haired neck and thought hard of warm stalls, clean straw, stout monastery walls, safety.
THE TWO CAME BACK, Molly plainly upset. With Jack it was hard to tell. Hob's eyes slid to them, then away. He determinedly observed the ox's wide neck; he kept his mind still and muttered Aves. Behind him passed snow-crunching footsteps, Molly's bell-deep tones, Jack's harsh gargle. On the road to Jerusalem, far away in the Holy Land, Jack Brown had taken a terrible wound in the throat and another to his ankle: a confused oval of smooth silver scar at the side of his neck as big as a big man's palm, a ruined voice, a limp, were all the relics he brought back from that hot and haunted country.
". . . oh there's craft in it, it's as bad as I've seen, I want us on as quick as quick." Hob heard Molly's footsteps returning swiftly. He looked up. She stood over him with a curious strained expression. "Stór mo chroí, you must lead on as fast as you may, and mind the road ahead. I'll watch the forest, nor must you trouble yourself about it." He nodded stiffly, and she turned away quick and crisp and hurried back to her seat, waving to Nemain to mount the second wagon.
She had spoken to him with an elaborate gentleness and kindness, as one spoke to a spooked horse. It was this that frightened him more than anything so far.
He caught the ox's bridle rope; as soon as Molly was settled he pulled. Insignificant as Hob's strength was, the giant stepped forward, obedient but with an unconvincingly furtive air, as it skirted the rock and followed Hob down the track. It had a kind of trust of Hob, after a year and a half in which he had mostly been the one to feed and groom it, and it followed him as one might follow a parent, a sight at once comical and piteous.
They hurried on, slipping on the iron-hard ruts and steel-colored patches of ice, the wagons swaying dangerously; in their tearing eyes the chill nasty wind, in their ears the creak and groan of flexing wood, the thud and clop of hooves on the hard ground, the harsh whistle of breath in the bitter air.
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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