THE WHEELS WERE SOLID disks as high as Hob himself, and the wood was warped a little and wet with the snow now coming down hard and clinging in patchy lumps to the rims. The main wagon had the aft right wheel fast in a drift, and as Hob added his slight frame to the stamping, cursing struggle to free it, his foot plunged to the ankle in a depression filled with a freezing gruel of snow and mud.
It felt like stepping into fire. Gasping with the shock, he threw himself against the tailboard. A smell of sweat and woodsmoke and rosemary came to him from his left: Molly, her ample well-turned arms, white as mare's milk, glimmering at the edge of his sight. Before his face loomed the weathered plank he forced his breast against. Nemain stood behind them and skimmed handfuls of ashes beneath their feet. At his right Jack Brown suddenly found purchase underfoot, his toes in the green leather boots stuffed with straw digging in, scrabbling in ash and ice and pebbles, and Jack's grunting heave freed the wheel's lip just enough. The ox trod forward again, steaming like a dragon, and Hob staggered as the wagon sailed away from him.
Hob stumped ahead, limping with the pain in his foot. Molly threw her cloak again around her shoulders, over the léine, that shift-like garment from her native Ireland, that she favored on the road. The cloak, and then a shawl, and she was ready to take the reins again: did she never feel the cold? The half-grown boy went forward by the ox and walked with a hand to the draw bar; the heat coming from the vast body was perceptible. He wished he could ride in the wagon.
The snow diminished, but in its stead came a malicious little wind that drew claws across the back of his neck. It found its way up the sleeves of his woolen shirt and between the flaps of his sheepskin coat.
The road wound through winter woods, upslope and down, the land rumpled and complex, with frequent outcrops of naked rock. The view was open enough near at hand, but within a few yards the overlapping trunks foiled the eye. Yews, pale slim birch, massive oaks formed a close horizon; the wagons moved between wooden walls.
Hob began to feel an unease of spirit, an oppression. The sensation grew swiftly till his bodily woes shrank beside it. He looked left at the slowly passing forest, rightward across the rippling, smoking haunches to the trackside brush and more trees, climbing away to the west. He felt breathless and ill. He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.
THE CARAVAN HAD COME from Ireby, away by the river Ellen. There had been little enough for them there, despite the town's sheep market, and Molly had planned to take them south and east through the mountain passes before the snows clamped down in earnest: this year, and the year before, had seen such cold and storm as not even the eldest village grandmam could remember. She hoped to make St. Germaine's, the hill monastery, before nightfall. It was where all travelers who used the Thonarberg Pass had to stay: one could not get over in a day, and night amid the eerie gorges and overleaning crags was unthinkable. There were stories of bandits who lived in cave and ravine, savage as stoats; there were stories of trolls who slept amid piles of bones and knew neither fire nor clothing.
"Gesu!" He made a frantic sideways leap to escape a great cloven hoof: the ox had performed a peculiar sidestep. It gave a flat dismayed bleat and stood trembling in place, rolling its large lovely eye. Behind him a sort of ripple passed down the tiny procession as first the ass and then the mare started and veered toward the trees to the east.
Through the volley of curses and the snap of reins coming from behind, Hob was aware of a thin, sour cry that drifted to him from ahead and to the west. His heart seemed to freeze. He was aware that he had seized the rope of the ox's bridle and was holding the big head, or perhaps just clinging to it. His eye was locked to the curtain of trees, and now he saw a flicker, a glint, of russet color: red as a fox, but tall, tall, high as a big man perhaps, but hard to judge, hard to tell from here, then gone as though it never was. A faint coughing snarl came down the wind, and the ox shoved hard against his chest, breathing moist heat through the folds of his sheepskin coat, its blunted horns to either side of his body. The huge beast was hiding its face against him.
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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