Authors: Matthew Cody
Bellwether had disappeared. Will whistled for her, but she was long past hearing or caring. He felt a sharp stab of alarm at
the thought of her alone in these woods. She wouldn’t last the night in this cold, with the wolves.
Neither would he if he didn’t act soon. The way he saw it, he had two choices. He could set off in search of his uncle or stay put and try to get a fire going and wait for dawn. If he started marching off blindly, he might take himself in entirely the wrong direction and get even more lost, but it didn’t feel right not to try. He decided that if no one had answered his calls by the time he’d walked a hundred paces, he’d stop and try to start a fire. There was flint and steel in his belt pouch, and a warm fire would help signal his uncle while hopefully keeping predators at bay.
He’d barely counted twenty paces when he heard something approaching. At first he thought it might be his uncle, but the sounds were too subtle for Samson’s hooves. Nothing moved in the trees that he could see. But he
It was the padding of soft feet on crackling leaves. Getting closer.
He grasped the hilt of the broadsword at his waist and found it frosted over. It took an extra tug to clear the blade from its frozen scabbard. When he hefted the heavy sword up, he winced in pain as fire shot down his shoulder to his fingertips. But he didn’t release his grip. Besides the broadsword, the only weapon he had was a long hunting knife at his side—his own spear was still strapped to Bellwether’s saddle, wherever she was.
The wolf emerged from the trees directly in front of him, teeth bared in a snarl. Will brought his sword’s point down to prepare for a charge, just as he’d been trained. But his arms were already shaking, and the heavy blade quivered in his hands.
The beast took a step forward and then paused, its head
tilting slightly toward the ground. That’s when the real attack came, as the big black one came bounding out of the brush to his right, a barking growl in its throat.
Will had just enough time to pivot and bring his sword to bear, but the giant wolf dodged the point easily and clamped its jaws over his left wrist. Will dropped the blade when the beast’s mouth closed over his arm like a trap, but the metal gauntlet held, keeping his wrist from being crushed in the monster’s mouth.
The black shook its head and pulled Will off his footing and down onto one knee. His right hand searched his belt as the wolf released him, freeing its teeth to make a lunge for Will’s unprotected throat.
It found the tip of Will’s hunting knife instead. The force of the creature’s own leap managed to drive the knife’s point home. Will was shoved backward, landing with a crash into the brush, a dead wolf sprawled across his chest.
While he struggled to roll out from beneath it, the first wolf found his shin, and this time sharp teeth pierced flesh. But the armored greave saved him from the worst of it. He kicked with his free leg and hit the beast squarely in its muzzle, but it didn’t let up. Will tried to yank his caught leg from the wolf’s mouth, and with a sudden snap he was free.
The wolf fell back a few steps with a metal greave in its jaw, the leather straps dangling loose. Apparently, Will hadn’t secured them as well as he thought—lucky for him.
He scrambled across the leaf-strewn floor to his sword, grabbed its hilt with one hand, and swung it in a great sweeping arc behind him. He didn’t even have time to look at what he was hacking. He just felt it connect.
Again and again his sword struck the wolf, until Will’s strength failed him and he fell panting and sick to the ground.
He was half frozen when Geoff found him two hours later. The leg had stopped bleeding, but he could barely unclench his fingers from his sword’s hilt. He’d been standing there that whole time, listening for the next attack, which never came. But he’d kept his eyes on the carcasses, waiting for them to transform into men. They’d stayed wolves. Just dead wolves.
When Geoff appeared in the brush, Bellwether in tow, Will finally allowed his sword’s point to fall to the dirt, but he still couldn’t let it go.
Osbert swore loudly as he looked over the scene. Geoff wrapped a thick woolen blanket around Will’s shoulders.
“Well, I’ll be bloodied,” Osbert said. “Wolfbait, my foot! All hail young lord
The men cheered and clapped Will on the back.
“Now,” said Osbert, “can we please go home? It’s cold out here.”
That lord is named Sir Guy of Gisborne, the Horse Knight
A name that in certain parts of the kingdom inspires worry
In the rest, fear
Will’s toes hurt worse than anything. It had stung when Nan sewed the cut on his cheek closed. His shoulder, covered in a deep blue and yellow bruise, throbbed painfully whenever he moved, and the wolf bite on his ankle had swollen to an angry red. But nothing compared to the excruciating torture of having his frozen toes thawed in a pot of hot water.
The pain began as nothing more than a slight tingle. Then what were once stone-numb toes came alive with tiny needle pricks, which grew into stabbing thorns and, ultimately, molten spears of hellfire. He pleaded with Nan.
Please, please, put my poor toes back on ice
, he’d begged.
Not if you want to have those toes in the morning
, she’d said.
You’re lucky they haven’t blackened and turned frostbit as is
I don’t need them all
, he’d cried.
I can do without one or two if it’ll make it stop!
In the end, he managed to suffer the torment and keep all ten, and once the ordeal had passed, he slept, not dragging
himself from bed until well after first light. The castle was frigid even though the servants kept roaring fires going throughout the night, and Will had to crack a layer of ice from his water-pot just to wash his face and hands. The shock of the freezing water woke him up, at least. A bad-tasting film covered the inside of his mouth and tongue, and he discovered that he’d bitten his cheek last night and not even known it. After rinsing his mouth out with ice water, he scrubbed his teeth clean with a twig of hazel.
His mother surprised him by delivering breakfast to his room. She said little but hugged him in a tight embrace. He ate bacon and a butter roll, and Nan brought him a steaming bowl of porridge. With the first bite, Will realized it was sweetened with molasses. Nan watched him eat, arching her eyebrows but saying nothing.
Will thanked them both while silently preparing a plan to find Nan’s hidden molasses stash. She’d practically dared him to.
Lessons for the day were canceled, and so he was left to his own devices, free to roam. Normally, this would be a very dangerous thing, but Will was still too sore to get into any real mischief. Shackley Castle was an old keep, not nearly as grand as the large stone castles of other lords. The main building’s wooden walls dated back to Will’s great-grandfather and the Norman conquest of England. In the years since, the foundations and outer walls had been reinforced or altogether replaced with solid stone. The ancient wooden hallways he traveled this morning were chilled enough; Will could only imagine what a winter morning like this must feel like in a fortress all of stone. As it was, Will had to wrap himself in a thick woolen shawl just to keep his teeth from chattering.
His wounded ankle had stiffened up during the night,
and as he limped through the castle halls, he was met with greetings of
and, by some,
. Last night’s events had already made the rounds of castle gossip, no doubt helped along by Osbert. Will wondered just how many wolves he’d killed in the old knight’s version of the story and if they were wolves at all. More likely it was Celt barbarians mounted on wolfback.
Geoff was busy that morning welcoming a visiting lord, an emissary from Prince John, and so Will wouldn’t get to see his uncle until the evening’s feast. Nan had told him that they would feast that night to celebrate his father’s imminent return and to honor the killing of the wolves. Truth be told, Will was in no mood to celebrate.
He’d killed those wolves, to be sure, but they’d practically fallen on his blade. Hunger had made those beasts overly bold, and they’d charged to their deaths. It was as Geoff had warned—they were desperate, and it was desperation that had gotten them killed, not Will’s skill in battle.
And when he closed his eyes, the wolves were still there. His dreams last night had been haunted by snarling faces and lonely howls. He’d been scared to look out his window for fear that the woods would be full of yellow eyes.
Will was so lost in remembering his wolf dreams that he nearly knocked over a pair of servants carrying long pine garlands and a thick white log.
“My apologies, Lord William,” said Henry, the stable master. “I didn’t see you there.”
“My fault,” said Will. “I wasn’t watching where I was going. What brings you inside?”
Henry smiled. “My lady’s brought in the stable staff to work indoors today, on account of the cold. Just enough of us left outside to tend fires, and we’re doing that in shifts, my lord.”
That was a kindness. Will’s mother had a gift for managing the house staff with decency, and they loved her for it.
“Jenny here’s helping me string the wreath.” Nan’s niece Jenny mostly helped out in the serving hall. She was older than Will by at least two years, but she still smiled prettily at him whenever they passed each other. Her cheeks dimpled when she laughed. Though she had been one of his childhood playmates, along with Henry’s son Milo, Nan made it her unofficial duty to keep the two of them apart as much as possible these days. It was unseemly, she said, for a young lord his age to be alone with a serving girl.
“What do you have there, Henry?” asked Will.
“It’s my lady’s Yule log for tonight’s feast!” said Jenny, smiling. There were the dimples.
Will glanced down at the white knotted log in Henry’s hands. He’d nearly forgotten! The burning of the Yule was a tradition that his mother had brought over from her family in France, one that marked the winter solstice and the beginning of …
And with Christmas came presents. Glorious, wonderful presents. Perhaps his father would be home in time to spend Christmas with the family.
Will grinned so big his stitched cheek hurt.
“Henry, my good fellow,” he said, clapping the stable master on the back. “I’ve just remembered something I must do. A lord’s duties are never finished, you know!”
Will risked a wink at Jenny—Henry would never tell—and then he set off down the hall with a new lightness in his step, despite the limp, and a new glint in his eye. Wolf dreams forgotten for the time being. Last night’s hunt was over, but the hunt for presents had just begun.
Feasting began in the early afternoon and would often last late into the night. On days like this, it seemed to the casual watcher that the job of the nobility was to sit and eat all day long, with frequent breaks to scratch one’s backside. And while this was true on the surface, what the common man did not see was the real work that went on during these massive meals. Negotiations, decrees, and acts of diplomacy were all accomplished between the pouring of the first cup of wine and the serving of the last sweet cake. Will’s father often said that peace treaties were best hammered out between the fish and meat courses (thus giving the diners plenty of time to digest both the meal and the unpleasant terms of the agreement). Feasting was serious business of state, and a lord’s duty.
Which was to say Will hated all of it. His rear was asleep before the first course was over, and now that he was a young lord-in-training, he was expected to actually listen to the adults’ conversations. After, his mother would sometimes test him on what had been said and who’d said it. He was expected to study the guest lists and memorize the lands and lineages of everyone at his table. In short, it was terribly close to