Great Mariaby Cecelia Holland
Her father is a robber baron...
Her husband has grand ambitions and a quick temper...
She will become...the Great Maria.
Cecelia Holland was born in 1943 and has written 24 historical novels, the first of which was published in 1966. The New York Times has called her a "literary phenomenon." She attended Connecticut College and now lives in/i>/b>… See more details below
Her father is a robber baron...
Her husband has grand ambitions and a quick temper...
She will become...the Great Maria.
Cecelia Holland was born in 1943 and has written 24 historical novels, the first of which was published in 1966. The New York Times has called her a "literary phenomenon." She attended Connecticut College and now lives in Northern California.
- Random House Children's Books
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By Cecelia Holland
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Cecelia Holland
All rights reserved.
Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue's face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say.
She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, for her father's good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks. She crossed herself. Down the slot in the rock that led to this cave, her escort talked and shuffled their feet. She closed her ears to the noise and willed the womanly stone face above her to soften and call her into a marriage with God.
The dank air raised gooseflesh on her arms. She started to shiver. The moment of rapture faded. For a few more prayers she struggled to bring it back, but the clammy cold and the sounds of the men outside the cave distracted her. She genuflected to the Virgin and went out the door into the cool spring sunlight.
The knights and their grazing horses were scattered over the meadow and down the slope in the sun. Across the little yard, beneath the beech trees, Elena was standing with the monk who served the shrine. All smiles, the monk started toward her, and the maid with the heap of Maria's cloak and hat followed after. She reached Maria's side, digging into her basket for the gift of money. Maria pushed the maid's hand with the offering toward the monk. She hated giving money to God. Elena helped her settle her wide hat on her head and tie the ribbons under her chin.
"God keep your highness," the monk said. His pale fingers counted the purse expertly through the leather and dropped it out of sight in his sleeve. "I hope your gracious and most mighty father is faring well this spring?"
Maria mumbled some answer and went past him toward her horse. The monk hurried around to hold her bridle for her. She could not meet his eyes. She felt like a fool, shy and stupid. Behind her, Elena spoke smoothly to the monk, assuring him of Robert Strongarm's good health. Elena was no older than Maria, but she was always able to talk to men, even strangers. Maria gathered her reins.
This year her father had sent only six knights with her, keeping back the rest for some other purpose. They were lining up at the far end of the meadow, next to the road, and she nudged her horse toward them. She knew none of the knights' names; she saw them only in groups, all doing the same thing. While they arranged themselves around her, she looked up at the steep hillside above the cave. Hermits lived up there, safe from the world, close to God. On her mule Elena rode into their midst. The straw basket hooked on her arm was full of apples for their dinner. Side by side, the two girls rode out of the yard.
The shrine was in the hill country north of Maria's castle, and their way home led them over the steep little hills, half-covered with brush. Occasionally, in the west, the sunlight flashed on the sea. Elena got out the apples, gave two to Maria, and scrubbed one on her sleeve to a hot shine. The mailed coats of the knights around them jingled softly. No one talked.
Maria ate one apple and rolled the other up in her sleeve. Through the corner of her eye, she studied the young knight on her left. He looked hardly older than she—Maria was fourteen. He was tall and slender, his face pretty as a girl's. His helmet covered his head. She wondered what color his hair was. Beside her, Elena was munching through her second apple. Perhaps this boy was Elena's knight—she had hinted that someone highborn loved her. Maria thought Elena's ruddy cheeks and wide lips were coarse, but she did have nice hands. A ballad singer once had sung of a knight who fell in love with a glimpse of a maid's white hands.
The flinty road curled along the slope ahead of them, half-hidden in the hairy leaves of the overgrowth. When the bushes blossomed, all these ugly hills would be flooded with red and yellow. She liked to make her year's pilgrimage just at Easter, in hopes of riding through the bloom, but the winter had been dry and she was too early. Now the young knight rode slightly ahead of her. From this angle he was not so pretty. She waited for another glimpse of the sea.
Elena leaned toward her. "Did you see the lay brother at the shrine? He said he would give me his gold cross, the next time we come, if I sit with him in the orchard." She giggled. "Let's go again in the summer, he says there are lots more people there—foreigners, people from all over."
"Why would you want to sit with him?"
"If you had a lover you would understand."
"I will understand now. Tell me."
Elena giggled and turned her head away. Under the cloth of her bodice, her round breasts were like two apples. Maria knew that Elena stuffed her bodice with linen. Maria arched her back, to thrust out her own breasts, and sneaked a glance at her shadow on the ground; she could see no difference.
The warmth of the sun lulled her to sleep. In the early afternoon, she woke and talked to Elena. The long day's riding had stiffened her legs and she let her feet dangle. They had climbed up into the hills. Short wind-driven trees curled in among the gray-green bushes and the rocks. Where the boy-knight had been was a man with gray eyes. Maria went back to sleep.
A yell brought her awake with a jolt so sharp she grabbed her horse's mane. The knights were surging up around her. Hoofs battered on the ground. All around her were the heavy mailed bodies of the men and their plunging horses. Somewhere people were screeching. Maria's horse reared, flailing out with its hoofs. An arrow jutted from its neck, fletched with red feathers. She jumped down to the ground. Iron rang on iron. The thrusting flanks and shoulders of horses walled her in. Her mare sank to its knees. Elena's mule was gone. A stallion's wide rump swung toward her, and she dodged its heels. The horse's tail lashed her cheek.
Ten feet away in the road, Elena lay sprawled on her back. She would be trampled. Maria went toward her. A knight bolted by her, and she heard a voice screaming in the Saracen tongue. The air was heavy with dust. She bent and seized Elena by the arms and heaved her up onto her feet. The girl slumped against her. Maria smelled blood and the crushed herbs in Elena's bodice. She closed her eyes. Prayers rushed through her mind. She opened her eyes again and drew a deep breath. She was Robert Strongarm's daughter and not a coward to die with her eyes shut. A horse spun around before her. Hoofbeats pounded away. There was a ragged whoop of triumph in her own language. She lifted her head, dazed with being saved. The knights rode laughing around her, shaking each other by the hand.
Maria let Elena slide down to the ground. A knight rode up to her and dismounted. When she started to kneel down beside the maid, he took her arm and held her on her feet.
"Leave her lie, girl. She's dead."
Maria stared stupidly at Elena. Two knights lifted the maid up across her mule's saddle and covered it with her cloak. No one else had died, not even a Saracen. Maria wiped her eyes on her sleeve. The knight beside her took her by the arm to steady her.
The boy-knight was coming toward her. He had taken off his helmet; his hair was bright red. He led a roan stallion, a war horse, and the hand on her elbow tightened; they expected her to ride a war horse.
"No," she said.
The knight beside her said, "Come on—we have to go."
"No. Put Elena on this horse, I will ride the mule."
The redheaded boy and the knight exchanged glances. Their faces matched, and from that and the looks between them, Maria guessed they were brothers. Silently, the boy led the roan horse around and put Elena's body across its saddle. Maria bit her lips. Blood stained the worn leather of the mule's saddle and she wiped it away with her sleeve. The gray-eyed knight boosted her into the saddle. They rode away into the barren hills. The boy and the knight talked in low voices beside her. Elena's basket hung from the cantle of her saddle. Maria got out her crucifix and prayed over it.
The boy laughed, bright-voiced. Between her prayers she admired him. She remembered wondering if he were Elena's knight. She began to cry again, more from fright than grief. She realized that she herself would surely die; she felt death before her like a mouth that would swallow her. All the knights were staring at her, and she choked down her tears.
All afternoon they rode over the hills. Just before sundown they came at last to their home valley. For generations, the villagers had plowed the fields, and the stretches of land along the river were cut into strips as intricate as needlework. In the middle of the valley, the serfs' round-roofed huts stood inside the hedge. Maria and her knights passed by at moonrise and continued on between the river and the fields, toward the southern end of the valley, where the castle was.
Exhausted, Maria wound her fingers fitfully in her reins, her blank mind incapable of sleep. Once, she swayed in her saddle and the knight beside her took her by the arm to brace her up. She thrust off his impersonal grip, angry for no reason she could think of. They left the river to skirt the bog at the foot of the castle's hill.
The two stone towers rose up against the sky. Maria's mule snorted with each stride. The knights slumped in their saddles and let their reins dangle. Maria twisted to look back at Elena's body, draped across the roan war horse. The redheaded boy caught her eye, riding behind her, and she jerked around straight again in the saddle.
They passed through the gate in the curtain wall and climbed the last of the road to the main gate. Nearly in tears again at being home, Maria rode past the porter into the open ward.
Her father came toward her from the foot of the New Tower. He wore his nightshirt, his fur cloak thrown across his shoulders, and his calves and feet bare below the hem. Maria started to leap down from the mule, but a hand caught her arm and held her forcibly in the saddle.
The redheaded boy appeared on foot at her stirrup, to lift her down. Maria looked angrily over her shoulder at the other knight. She let herself slide decorously down into the boy's grip. She thrust him away and turned to her father.
He hugged her tight in his arms. She clung to the fur around his shoulders, her heart pounding. He said, over her head, "They attacked you."
"Saracens—we ran them off. But the maid was killed."
"Elena," the old man said. His grip loosened. Maria pressed herself against him, stunned. He said again, "Elena," in that same voice, and Maria stood back, furious, knowing now who had been Elena's lover.
* * *
In the morning the Saracens' attack was already blurred in her memory, like a dream, and Elena seemed long dead. When she went down to the hall, the other women treated her like a baby. No one seemed to care about Elena. "She's better off dead than taken alive," fat Adela said. The other women agreed with force. Maria turned her back on them, morose.
The cook sent for her; she went down the stairs and out to the ward. Several of the knights were grooming their horses along the wall. She trotted a wide half circle past them—all the knights' stallions kicked—and went on, along the path toward the kitchen.
The stable door opened, down the wall, and the redheaded boy Roger led his black horse up into the sunlight. Maria pulled open the kitchen door. She stood a moment looking out at the young knight and went down into the kitchen.
On the table before the door, the day's bread was stacked to cool, beside it a tray of sweet buns still steaming from the oven. A scullion was stirring a pot over the fire. He shouted over his shoulder for the cook. Maria went forward into the kitchen.
Bald as a peeled garlic, the cook loomed up before her. A wooden spoon and a meat ax were jammed under the sash of his filthy white apron. "You've let me run out of flour again," he told her. "Your mother always knew when I was going short of flour. If you'd give me the God-damned key"—he brushed past her, headed for the door, and she followed him. In passage she thieved a sweet bun.
"It's not bad enough I don't have ovens fit to bake in," the cook said. Behind his back she stuffed the hot bun in her apron. "I can't bake for fifty people in this kitchen—" His voice rose to a bellow. He opened the door and plunged out into the ward, Maria on his heels. "Now that he's letting any mounted trash take up the loafer's life here—"
Maria ran on ahead of him to the door into the storeroom. From the knights scattered across the ward there rose a general mocking answer, mostly oaths. The redheaded boy Roger paid no heed to any of it. She was careful not to look at him too long.
She kept all the keys in a ring on her belt. With the cook's help, she opened the lock, and they went into the dark storeroom. The cook had to stoop to keep his head out of the strings of sausage and garlic and the sides of bacon hanging from the beams.
"Go in there," he said. "You're little and young—go back in there and find me a salt block."
Maria crawled in behind the kegs of meat. When she crept back out again, the kitchen knaves were lugging out wheat sacks into the ward. The cook stood beside the door presiding. He dragged her over beside him.
"If you'd give me the key, I could get things out when I need them."
Maria said nothing. She had no intention of giving him the key. Outside, someone shouted. The cook charged out the door. Maria rushed after him.
Three sacks of wheat stood in the ward just outside the storeroom door. The cook sprinted past them, moving fast for such a big man, and disappeared into the kitchen. Maria and the two kitchen knaves stood rapt, waiting.
Three knights burst up out of the kitchen. Their hands were piled with sweet buns. Laughing, they wheeled to face the cook, who charged after them, swearing in a half-choked voice. The knights circled him. He struck at one with his meat ax, and another darted in behind him and tripped him flat on his backside. The two kitchen knaves bleated with laughter.
The knights retreated; the honey buns were all eaten anyway. Huffing, the cook strode up toward Maria. "Get that cart hitched—hop!" He smacked the nearer of the boys, and they raced away toward the stable.
"When your mother was alive," the cook said bitterly, "I was treated like a Christian in this damned robbers' den."
Maria stood behind him, so that he would not see the sweet bun in her apron. She was trying to gather the courage to talk to the redheaded boy—she would have to send some of the knights with the cook to the mill. She started across the ward to the stable door, in the base of the Knights' Tower, where the men were collecting. Roger was there but she could not make herself look at him. The gray-eyed knight was there, his brother; she went up to him.
"Please, will you take some men and go with the cook to the mill?"
He nodded, and she crossed the ward to the New Tower again like a rabbit back to its burrow. Inside the dark stairwell, she leaned against the wall and watched the knights, the redheaded boy in their midst. They all tramped away, down into the stable, and she bounded up the stairs, buoyant.
* * *
Elena's grave was in the burying ground just outside the castle wall. Maria let herself through the little door in the gate and walked around the foot of the wall, careful of the thorny shrubs sprouting in the sunlight. The ground pitched off steep as a waterfall, buried in pine. Far down there, the serpentine strips of the fields spread across the valley floor, slashed by the brown streak of the river. She went on around the foot of the wall, in and out of the shadows.
She said prayers for Elena and her mother, buried higher on the hill, and sat down in the sun with the castle wall at her back. The graveyard was thickly planted in herbs; certain things grew most potent there. Down in the valley, a boy rode a limping workhorse into the river to soak its legs. She wrapped her arms around her knees. Here nearly every day she and Elena had told each other stories of kings and wizards, enchanted weapons and horses and treasure, maidens despoiled and magic castles lost and won. Elena had despoiled the maidens. Maria had preferred the weapons and horses.
Abruptly she looked up above her. The redheaded boy was leaning against the top of the wall. Their eyes met. All over her body, her skin grew prickly and alive. He did not look away. After a moment she tore her gaze from his and pointed it elsewhere.
She could sit there no longer, not with him above her, and she raced along the foot of the wall toward the gate. He had looked at her so long and with no reason to be doing it; she remembered his stare and held her breath. She dashed into the ward and ran across to the New Tower.
Excerpted from Great Maria by Cecelia Holland. Copyright © 2010 Cecelia Holland. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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