BENEATH THE HUM AND CHATTER of the lower hall, the bang of wooden dishes and the clink of pewter, the crackle of flames in the fireplace, Hob could hear the tick of Sir Jehan’s bronze fingertips against the arm of his chair.
The lad sat at the high table in the great hall of Castle Blanchefontaine. The castle, high in the forested ridges of the Pennine Mountains, had been built by Sir Jehan’s ancestors a hundred years ago in the twelfth century. Around Hob were his adopted family: Maeve, called Molly, and her granddaughter, Nemain, both out of Ireland, and the strong-bodied Jack Brown, Molly’s lover. They were here at the invitation of Sir Jehan, the Sieur de Blanchefontaine, and they awaited another knight that they were to meet this chill spring evening. Sir Jehan, never one to sit quietly, was fidgeting in his impatience.
He lifted his chin to indicate one of the diners in the lower hall, a young man-at-arms with new-washed hands, but with a thin gray layer of road dust in his hair and on the shoulders of his leather gambeson. “That man there, madam,” he said to Molly, “is one of Sir Odinell’s outriders; he says their party will be here within the hour. I had messages from him this winter past, and when I knew you were to visit us, I sent for him. I believe that you will be of much benefit, one to the other. We are old friends. He has family—he is one of the De Umfrevilles, although a minor branch, and he has connections with the De Lucys and the Nevilles as well. You are perhaps familiar with them?”
“I have heard somewhat,” said Molly.
“These are magnates of the North,” said Sir Jehan, “and have lands here and in Scotland and in Normandy; their influence, or even patronage, would be no small matter. Sir Odinell has wealth, he has knights; when you are ready to return to Ireland, he can be as a stout shield to you. As will I, as will I—but he has greater kinfolk, and . . .” With his left hand he toyed with his trencher for a few heartbeats, then pushed it aside; drew his goblet toward him, but did not drink. “But he is much vexed; has a burden upon him; strange neighbors have come to him, and his people are plagued with horrid doings. He has written to me, entreating me to advise him. . . .”
He looked at Molly, a heavy but shapely woman, with startling blue eyes and a thick mane of gray and silver hair, a handsome woman a few years past her half-century mark, sitting calmly across the wide table, hardly a daunting figure, and said, “I believe you to be, madam, the one person I would commend to him in this . . . this odd and perplexing trouble. . . .” He took the stem of his goblet between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and, twirling the stem, turned the goblet round and round on the tabletop. “I will let him tell you of his woes, and I will try to explain to him why he must trust you so fully. He may disbelieve at first; still, he has seen so much that is . . .” His voice trailed off; he turned a little in his chair so he could see the fire, and lapsed into silence as his gaze was drawn toward the flames.
The firelight played over his rather lupine features: the prominent cheekbones and strong chin that formed a triangle, accented by a broad brow and deep-set blue eyes, a carrot-colored widow’s peak. The Sieur de Blanchefontaine stretched his long legs out before him, then drew them back. Hob had the sense that the knight—active, lean, athletic—was restive; this waiting, this enforced idleness, chafed him, which seemed a kind of proof that he had recovered from the terrible events of a year and a quarter ago.
Sir Jehan was in no wise so restless as he had been when first Hob had encountered him last year, but there was yet an abundance of energy that would express itself now and again in fretful movements, as at this moment, when his beautiful, immobile right hand tapped lightly and persistently, Sir Jehan himself all unaware of it.
The hand was hollow: the knight’s ruined real hand fit inside as in a glove, the fingers that remained to him slipping into the hollow bronze ones, the rigid metal supporting his hand. The fingers of the hollow hand bent in a slight natural curve; the fingernails, the wrinkles of the knuckles, even the veins on the back, had been delicately fashioned by an Italian, a master craftsman from that land of cunning master craftsmen. A hinged bracelet proceeded from the back of the bronze glove, clasped Sir Jehan’s wrist, and helped to secure the hand. Were it not for the color and the rigidity, it might be thought a true hand, though perforce a bit larger to accommodate the living hand within.
Sir Jehan had had his secretary and chaplain, Father Baudoin, write out, in the priest’s angular Norman characters, a motto for the Italian to copy. Graven across the back of the hand, just behind the knuckles, facing the observer, the grooves of the letters filled in with green gold, was the legend Cave Sinistram: “Beware the Left Hand.” And indeed Sir Jehan had become, by dint of the force of his will and a near-frenzied devotion to practice, as dangerous with his left hand as he had been with his right.
He had another metal hand that he wore on campaign: this was of iron, and the fingers hinged, so that he could close and lock them on a shield’s bracket, and the iron hand’s bracelet was reinforced by stout straps that ran up above his elbow. The motto was the same, Cave Sinistram, but picked out in silver letters. It was, however, unlikely that a foe of Sir Jehan would have the leisure to take advantage of the warning—one who had survived an encounter with him said that engaging the Sieur de Blanchefontaine was like finding oneself in the midst of a four-dog fight, a storm of blurred sharp-edged danger.
Hob looked around at the whitewashed plaster of the great hall, stained above the huge hearth by swirls of pale gray, dark gray, and carbon-black soot. He felt happy and secure here in Blanchefontaine’s high-ceilinged hall, with its lattice-screened balcony for musicians to play unseen, its two hearths, its wide-planked floors spread with rushes, the rushes freshened with sprinklings of lady-of-the-meadow and germander. The walls were adorned with the brightly colored escutcheons of the household knights; with displays of battered and age-darkened weapons, including a spray of angons and other ancient throwing spears; and with adroitly made tapestries.
Some of these tapestries depicted the hunt and some depicted martial scenes; three others illustrated certain songs of the troubadours. These last were the work of blithe little Dame Aline, the wife of Sir Balthasar, Blanchefontaine’s stern castellan. Dame Aline, ever eager to hear the latest song or poem from the continent, had woven the large tapestry that now hung behind the pages’ bench, a favorite of Hob’s: a scene from an alba of Guiraut de Bornelh, in which the lovers embrace in a shadowed garden, while their accomplice, a watchman in a tower, calls down to them that dawn approaches, with its danger of discovery.
Over the last year Molly’s little troupe had returned to the castle at intervals, staying a few weeks at a time. During these visits Molly tended to Sir Jehan’s injuries, physical and otherwise, from the disastrous winter of the year before. Her deliverance of the castle from an evil invader had made fierce partisans of Sir Jehan and everyone else in the castle, high to low.
Hob himself was under the tutelage of Sir Balthasar: both that fearsome knight and Sir Jehan had promised that Hob would be trained in the Norman fashion, and would be made a knight, and addressed him now as Squire Robert. Whenever Molly’s troupe sojourned at Blanchefontaine, the two subjected Hob by night to intricate instruction in castle etiquette, and by day to brutal lessons in weaponcraft, horsemanship, and the destruction of one’s enemies. The intense exercise when they were at the castle, along with Jack’s insistence on activity designed to increase Hob’s strength whenever they camped along the road, had wrought a change: Hob was no longer a boy, but a sturdy muscular youth.
Some of Castle Blanchefontaine’s junior knights—including Sir Tancred, who had by sheer good fortune escaped the events of last year unscathed—shared the high table. They had withdrawn to the far end, for there are no secrets in a castle’s community, and it was known that Sir Jehan was to conduct a matter of some grave import that night, and was not to be intruded upon.
From the hall led four archways: one that gave onto the steps that went down to the guardhouse and so out to the bailey, and three that gave access to interior stairways. From one of the latter came a burst of high-pitched laughter, and a moment later a party of women appeared: the wives of two of the married knights, as well as Dame Aline, and Lady Isabeau herself, Sir Jehan’s wife.
Sir Jehan and the other knights stood; he greeted his wife and murmured something to her. She nodded, and swept Dame Aline and the other women down to the far end of the table, there to preside among the castle’s resident knights, for Sir Jehan was to excuse himself as soon as Sir Odinell arrived.
Hob, who was beginning to grow bored as well as hungry, took the occasion to contemplate Lady Isabeau and Dame Aline. He was now well into his fifteenth year—he had turned fourteen last October, and here they were, halfway through April—and betrothed to Nemain, whom he adored. But in his newly awakened manhood, he found himself acutely aware of the appeal to the eye that women—more beautiful than flowers, more graceful than cats—presented. These two women, close friends, presented a contrast in appearance, each with her own virtue.
Lady Isabeau was tall and slim. Her hair, black and lustrous as raven-feather, her dark eyes, her dark brows, all were set off by her ivory skin; the long and very thin scar that interrupted her left eyebrow and curved to the corner of her mouth only enhanced an expressionless, almost eerie beauty. Dame Aline, pretty rather than beautiful, was short and sonsy, lightly freckled, with features that, lit from within by a sweet and merry nature, achieved a kind of radiance.
As Hob watched, the two women gathered all attention to themselves and, by dint of question and comment, drew every knight and lady into the circle of banter and discussion. Soon their end of the high table was alight with jest, conversation, even snatches of song, while the other end, where sat the Sieur de Blanchefontaine and his party, seemed somber by contrast.
At the opposite end of the hall from the dais where Sir Jehan and his guests sat at table, there was a stout wooden screen. For all its decorative carving, it was thick, and securely fastened, and several feet wider than the doorway it concealed. This doorway, with its two heavy leaves, led to the top landing of an external closed stairway, which descended one storey to the ground, and doubled back on itself, and ended in a strong guardhouse. The whole was intended to slow attackers and so prevent surprise attacks, and to make entrance as difficult as possible. There was even a pitfall on the stairway that could be uncovered. The screen itself obliged anyone who sought entrance to turn and walk a few feet in the narrow space between the carved wood and the plaster of the wall. Sir Jehan stationed guards at all times within the hall, clustered down by the screen, and in the doorway behind it as well.
Among these guards now arose a stirring: murmured questions, men standing up and drawing nearer to the entranceway, loosening weapons; a gradual increase in the noise down-hall silenced those on the dais; then the detail commander stepped around the end of the screen and announced, crisp as a trained herald: “Sir Odinell de Umfreville, Sieur de Chantemerle.” And around the screen came a burly knight of medium stature, clean-shaven, hard-eyed, his broad forehead continuing on to a head quite bald in front and crowned with a horseshoe-shaped fringe of salt-and-pepper hair. Behind him came three of his knights, and twice that many of his household guard, surrendering their swords to the door-watch.
Sir Jehan stood to receive him; then, impatient as ever, lithe as ever, sprang from the dais and strode to meet him. They embraced like kinfolk in the middle of the hall. A moment’s private greeting, then they turned and made their way to the dais, the common folk of the castle turning on their benches, leaning across their trestle tables, to watch the visitors’ progress: welcome matter for observation, analysis, gossip.
A very small girl, clad only in a blue smock and pulling a large patient dog along by one ear, had wandered into the center aisle between the tables, and stood barefoot on the rushes, staring openmouthed at the oncoming knights. Sir Jehan nimbly detoured around her; with his metal hand he waved Sir Odinell and his people to the high table on the dais, with the other he pointed to the child and called into the crowd of people at the tables, “Edith! Come get this strayed lamb!”
There was a burst of laughter from the folk who sat near, and a young woman, flushed, wiping her hands on her apron, came quickly from among the diners. “My lord,” she said apologetically, and scooped up the child. Sir Jehan nodded, not really vexed, and jumped lightly onto the dais.
The six men-at-arms joined the outrider on the benches of the castle folk; the three knights followed Sir Odinell onto the dais. Sir Jehan indicated chairs, and the four knights disposed themselves about the main table, while Sir Jehan made brief introductions. Molly he styled as Queen Maeve, and Nemain as Queen Nemain, and both were correct, were they back in Ireland, and at the head of their clan.
Molly, biding her time to return to Erin, to revenge, and to the resumption of her status as clan chieftain and queen, traveled in obscurity through England as musician and healer, and used the Christian pet name Molly rather than the pagan Maeve. Sir Odinell had been told somewhat of this, and was not taken aback by the introduction, although he was not sure that he completely understood Molly’s status.
Now Sir Jehan turned to the pages’ bench behind him and gave them a significant look before resuming his seat. Two of the older pages had leaped to their feet as the guests arrived, and now they moved quickly along the line of younger boys, assigning this one to bring fresh flagons of bragget and that one to set out more goblets, a third to fetch a platter of oat cakes, and four to wait individually upon the visitor knights.
Sir Jehan had recently replaced the Irish wolfhounds he had lost, on the selfsame night that he had lost much of his hand, with two litters sent from Ireland. A wolfhound pup, wheat-colored, black-muzzled, a bit plump but already beginning to show length of leg, got up from the heap of its fellows dozing by the fire. It ambled over and sat down on Sir Jehan’s foot.
“A handsome young fellow; he will be huge,” said Sir Odinell.
“He will that,” said Sir Jehan. He reached down and thumped its side with his good hand. “Rollo,” he said absently. The puppy was named after the giant Orkney Norseman who had founded Normandy. Sir Jehan turned back to his guest. “I have a male and a female for you, Odinell, one from each litter, that you may breed a tribe of your own.”
Sir Odinell gave a little seated half bow. “My thanks.” He smiled politely, but Hob thought to see a shadow about his eyes; Sir Odinell’s heart seemed so troubled that he was not fully aware of his surroundings.
There followed a period of idle chatter, mostly on the part of Sir Jehan: courtesy dictated that he at least give the travelers the opportunity to recover somewhat from the dust and fatigue of the trail. Hob noticed that it was not long, though, before the bronze hand began to tap gently upon the lion’s head that terminated Sir Jehan’s chair arm. A short while thereafter the knight rose, excused himself, gathered up Sir Odinell and Molly and her party, and led the way from the hall, leaving Lady Isabeau and Dame Aline to preside at table.
Something evil has come to reside in a castle by the chill waters of the North Sea: men disappear and are found as horribly wizened corpses, knights ride out and return under an enchantment that dulls their minds. Both the townspeople and the court under Sir Odinell’s protection live in fear, terrorized by forces beyond human understanding. But rumors of a wise woman blessed with mysterious powers also swirl about the land. The call goes forth, and so it comes to be that young apprentice Hob and his adopted family—exiled Irish queen Molly, her granddaughter Nemain, and warrior Jack Brown—are pitted against a malevolent nobleman and his beautiful, wicked wife.
Richly set in the inns, courts, and countryside of thirteenth-century northwest England, The Wicked is a darkly spun masterpiece that will leave fans of epic fantasy thirsty for more.