Hodge sat in a doorway and trimmed his toenails with a knife.With one eye turned to the task at hand, he fixed his other eye upon the stone arch directly across the cluttered courtyard. It was a talent he had, this wall-eyed staring, which allowed him to stand on the castle wall and survey both the outer plains and the inner keep at once-to see both the sky and the ground beneath. Today, however, he chose to sit in a doorway and trim his toenails with a knife.
Martin's Mary crossed the shadowed square before his view, lugging a bucket of water from the well. Bert the ostler, still in his nightshirt, leaned out from the stable and spit into the courtyard. Young Jayne Kemp, a scullery maid, carried a pail of kitchen scraps to the swine-cote. But for these, the castle might have been abandoned.
Long ago, on a bright summer morning such as this, the keep would have been a much busier place, full of noise and color, sights and smells: the shouting of peddlers, acrobats and jugglers; the aromas of fresh baked breads and roasting meats; the officious trumpeting of the Royal Guard as they heralded the rising of kings and princes. But the castle had long since lost its position of importance to those kings and princes, and was now a place of quiet indolence. Cast-off rubbish littered the courtyard. Tufts of stunted grass peeked up through cracks in the paving stones. Even the bird-soiled towers and battlements seemed to have forgotten those former days of glory.
On many a fire-lit night Hodge had listened in rapt attention as old Jesper told of those times-the days when Castle Marlby had served as a seasonal retreat of the Royal Family. Rumors hinted that perhaps a return to those olden-golden days was near.
With an impatient sigh, Hodge turned a wandering eye to the sky and then back to the archway. His brother, Fleet, had accused him of wishful thinking, but still those rumors pounded through his heart and filled him with hope.
He pushed himself to his feet and tucked his knife into the belt he always wore cinched about his middle. Standing, his head and shoulders reached no higher than a child's. Though the growth of more than thirteen summers was bound up in his frame, those years had drawn his sinews tight, bowing his back like a willow branch.
li0He stretched his aching muscles the best he could-he had been crouched in the doorway through the night, and his arms and legs had cramped from the waiting. He shifted from one foot to the other. Scanning the courtyard, he picked out a paving stone to signify the anticipated hour. When the retreating shadow touched its edge, he decided, the royal party would cross the drawbridge, pass through the gatehouse, and enter the inner ward where they could cast off the dust and fatigue of their long journey. And Hodge would approach, bent in his eternal posture of humility, and beg to be of service to the Prince himself.
Hodge sniffed the air. He breathed in the early morning smells of damp earth and mildew. Sunlight edged onto his selected stone. The royal party did not appear. He picked another stone and continued the wait. He slumped back in the doorway, scratched his toes, and yawned. He selected yet another stone. The sun climbed toward noon, and still the courtyard remained in silence except for the uneven squawking of a chicken.
It was just yesterday morning that Hodge first heard of the rumored arrival. He was cleaning out the gong-pit beneath the castle latrines, an odious job that always left a foul smell upon his clothes. He had just splashed a bucket of clean water down the shaft that led to the moat when he heard echoing words from far above. Someone was in the privy.
"I don't know," came a voice, ringing off the stones of the latrine-chute. "Maybe it's true."
Sir William, Hodge thought.
"Hah! What would the Prince be doing here?" said a second.
"I only know what I heard," said a third.
Sir Robert for sure. It's getting awful crowded up there. And then Hodge thought he'd better clear out before those men got down to business. It wasn't until he slogged into the sunlit bailey that he gave attention to what they had said.
A Prince? Coming here? It would be a dream come true.
Hodge spied Tom Dalby, the chandler's boy, hustling around the corner of the keep.
"Hey, Tom!" he called, following after him. "Have you heard?"
He rounded the corner just in time to see Tom and Jayne Kemp huddled together by the well. It looked as if they had been kissing. Hodge blushed and backed away, but Tom sniffed the air.
"What's that smell?" He pinched his nose and looked about in disgust. "Oh, it's just the gong farmer. Hey, boy, why don't you go where you belong, out with the pigs?"
"Oh, Tom," Jayne said. "Let him be."
Tom picked up a stone. "Hie thee hence," he said, imitating Lord Selden's booming voice. "Get ye gone." He flicked the stone at Hodge, but it clattered harmlessly at his feet.
Hodge snatched up the stone.
"Hey, now, hold there," Tom said, inching back behind Jayne.
"Now Tom," she said.
"I'll not have that fool a knocking off me head." Pushing Jayne before him as a shield, Tom hustled to safety.
Hodge hurled the stone at the old oak bucket. With a loud thunk the bucket tumbled into the well, trailing its rope behind.
"Neatly placed," Jayne whispered from behind. "Grateful I am it wasn't Tom's head."
Hodge shivered at her closeness, but when he turned about, she was gone. He peeked around the corner just in time to see her skipping down the steps into the kitchen.
"Thank you," he said. Then he hurried off to find someone else to tell the news.
"Ho, Bert," he called to the ostler, who was busy pitching hay in the stables.
"Ho, yerself," Bert said. "You been in the sewage again. You better get outta here 'fore you kill my horses with that stench."
"But I just heard that the Prince is coming."
"Yeh, and once't I seen a gatehouse flying with the crows. Now clear out."
Hodge ducked the fork load of hay that Bert tossed at him and scuttled off in search of his brother. But even Fleet didn't seem interested in his news.
"Brother," Fleet said as he braided feathers into a falcon lure, "the Prince wouldn't be coming here." He hung the lure up alongside the assorted hoods and jesses that decorated the rear wall of the mews. "Castle Marlby is not important enough for a royal visit."
"But I heard--"
Fleet laughed. "Rumors from the gong-pit? Besides, what would it have to do with us even if it were true?"
Hodge kicked at the straw. "Only, I always thought..."
"Yes, I know. You always thought you would like to serve a king. But Hodge, you are the son of a nobody. Like me. What chance do we have?"
"At least you belong to the mews."
"I know, brother. And someday you'll belong to something, too. But first you ought to bathe. You stink a bit."
With Fleet's words tugging at him, Hodge left the mews and trudged across the courtyard, through the gatehouse, and across the fields toward the Eiderlee. He splashed into the icy stream, trying to wash the foul smell from his hair and clothes.
Hodge awoke to Fleet's gentle prodding.
"There you are," Fleet said. "Bilda's been looking for you."
Hodge scrabbled about in his mind trying to remember where he was. At last, the memory of paving stones and drowsy waiting crept back into his head. He rubbed his face with a calloused hand. "Awww, what's she want today?"
"She's mucking out the ovens this afternoon," Fleet answered. "She's wanting your help."
"Why this afternoon?"
"In case the rumors be true," Fleet said.
"I thought you didn't believe 'em."
"I'm not the one mucking out the ovens."
Hodge pulled on his shabby boots. "My feet's asleep," he groaned, struggling to stand. He tried to stamp the tingling from his toes.
"I think your head's asleep, too," Fleet said. "At least the part between your ears." He helped Hodge steady himself. "Come on, brother. There's work to be done."
Hodge looked up into Fleet's thin face. "And always me to do it."
Fleet chuckled. "Yes, brother, always you." He led the way toward the kitchen with Hodge hobbling along behind, still trying to wiggle the tingling from his toes.
"Wait up," Hodge called.
Though Lord Selden was by lineage the most important person in the castle, many of its inhabitants secretly deferred to Bilda, the cook. By size, she was the largest person in the keep-an evidence of her culinary skills, which gave her a status slightly higher than nobility. To Hodge, however, she was simply a bothersome taskmistress. Because of his deformity he was of scant use to the ostler or the blacksmith. All he was good for was hauling wood, cleaning the privies-and mucking out the ovens.
"There you are," Bilda said.
He stumbled down the steps into the kitchen, leaving Fleet to get back to his own duties in the mews. With the midday meal finished, the kitchen was nearly empty now. Bilda thrust a large, wooden pail into Juffa's hands.
"The pastry oven first," she said.
He grunted, but accepted the bucket. With a rake he pulled the ashes from the trough beneath. Leftover warmth from the morning baking caused beads of sweat to break out on his brow. He filled the bucket, carried it to the barrow waiting just outside the kitchen door, and dumped it in a gray flurry of ashes.
Tom Dalby sauntered by and knocked the bucket from his hands. "Still to your eyeballs in filth?" he asked. Then he laughed and hurried away.
Hodge scowled. He wondered how anyone could say Tom was near old enough to be called a man. Grumbling, Hodge returned to the kitchen to fill the bucket again.
Once the trough was cleared and swept, he leaned into the oven proper to scrape the floor and walls. By the time he pulled himself back out he was drenched with sweat. He could taste the salt on his lips.
"Are you done?" Bilda asked, looking up from the dinner preparations.
Her question made Hodge think of baking bread. He wiped his face with the back of his arm. "I'm well done."
"Good." Bilda flung several chunks of coney-meat into a boiling pot. "Now for the other."
Hodge groaned. Fat drippings from a year's worth of oxen, boar, and mutton were waiting to be shoveled from the large oven. A messy task made worse by the grease-slippery stones. It was almost as bad as cleaning the latrines. After a moment's hesitation, Hodge heaved himself inside. He grimaced at the rancid smell. This oven was big enough to roast three oxen standing side-by-side, with room yet to run a bit (if the urge took them). Hodge could stand inside it well enough. He pushed his shovel into the muck and sliced up a pile of congealed fat and ash. The shovel struck the back wall with an echoing thwunk.
He scraped the muck off his shovel into the bucket and set himself for another pass, but a booming voice echoed through the kitchen. Lord Selden's voice. Hodge turned a free eye to the oven door.
"We must have a feast!" Lord Selden boomed.
"Yes, M'Lord," Bilda answered.
"Tomorrow," he boomed again.
"I have received a letter. With the royal seal. The Prince is coming. We will have a boar or two. And doves. And liver and kidney pies. And sweetlings and honey breads. And we'll crack a new cask in the buttery so that we have plenty to drink."
Hodge peeked from the oven in time to see Bilda's brief curtsey to Lord Selden's back. The Lord of the Castle disappeared out the door, hurrying on to other boomings.
"It's true?" Hodge asked, climbing out of the oven.
Bilda nodded. "Seems it's so." She threw another chunk of coney-meat into the stew. "And who is going boar hunting this late in the day, I'd like to know?"
That night Hodge lay curled up in the straw of their tower basement next to Fleet. Some vermin-pest was chewing on the back of his knee. He scratched at it only to make the stinging worse. Giving up, he pulled his blanket over his shoulders. "I was wrong," he said to his brother, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.
"Mmmm." Fleet seemed half asleep.
"The prince is not coming today."
"Yes, I was wrong." Hodge pulled the blanket close to hide his gloating. "He's coming tomorrow."
"So I heard."
Hodge rolled himself to a sitting position. "You heard? From who?"
Fleet answered from the depths of his own bedding. "It's buzzing about the whole of the keep. Lord Selden had the butler jumping about like Beelzebub on his tail."
Hodge flopped back to his side. "Well... I heard it from M'Lord himself."
"Oh? And what did he tell you, brother."
"That he got a letter with the royal seal. The Prince is coming, and he'll be here tomorrow. There'll be a feast. But Bilda says no boar. It's to be mutton."
"Mutton? That's a bit common for a prince."
"Well... maybe there'll be an ox. Or two."
"Then it surely will be a feast."
Hodge nodded in the dark. "A fine feast. And I will offer the Prince my service. He will have a use for me."
"Well, brother, he might. And I hope he does, if he really comes. But now it's late. Go to sleep."
Hodge could hear Fleet rustling to a comfortable spot. And then there was silence.
"Good night," Hodge whispered. Copyright © 2004 Randall Wright
Excerpted from "Hunchback" by Randall Wright. Copyright © 0 by Randall Wright. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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