"You!" shouted a voice from near the willow tree. "Stop!"
Hodge heard the jangle of a horse's bridle. He spun about the other way, but a dark shape jumped out of the shadows and knocked him to the ground. Light flashed into his face as a lantern was uncovered.
"A spy," hissed the figure. "A stinkin' spy."
A glorious adventure of castles, kings, traitors-and one humble hunchback who has to save them all
Long ago, Castle Marlby rang with the comings and goings of kings and princes. Now the castle is a quiet, sleepy place where everyone seems to have forgotten those golden days. Everyone but Hodge, that is. Though his hunched back earns him the unlovely job of mucking out the latrine, he dreams of serving a prince someday. But when one finally appears, he is nothing like Hodge expected.
Prince Leo is kept hidden away behind locked doors, as if he were in terrible danger. Or is he himself the dangerous one? When Hodge discovers the truth, he tumbles headlong into an adventure that proves far more exciting than he could ever have imagined. It will take all his strength to survive-and all his heart.
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
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By Randall Wright
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 Randall Wright
All rights reserved.
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.
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 coming 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 for 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.
He 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 out 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 on 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 wobbled on the stone wall. A louder thunk and the bucket tumbled into the well, trailing its rope behind.
Hodge spun about to see who had thrown the second stone.
Jayne wiped her hands on her skirt. "Better the bucket than Tom's head," she said, and off she dashed after Tom.
Hodge peeked around the corner just in time to see her skipping down the steps into the kitchen. "I'd rather it was Tom's head," he said to himself. 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 pigs. Now clear out."
Hodge ducked the forkload 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 up the lure 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. She was the largest person in the keep — 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.
Hodge 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 Hodge'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 the 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 a thunk.
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 we have plenty to drink."
Hodge peeked from the oven in time to see Bilda's brief curtsy 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 up 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 was 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.CHAPTER 2
The castle had not seen such bustle for many a year. It seemed Lord Selden wanted everything done at once: the scattering of fresh rushes and lavender in the Hall; weeding and cleaning of the inner ward; mucking out the stables, dovecotes, and mews — all things with which Hodge could help. For once, he didn't mind. And for once, even Tom Dalby was too busy to torment him.
Hodge hurried about the castle in high excitement, skittering from place to place. He offered his hand at hauling wood for the great fireplace in the solar, Lord Selden's private quarters above the hall. He begged to help with the repairs of the drawbridge. He insisted he be allowed to climb the High Tower to watch for the royal party. Then he hurried away to the kitchen on some pretext, that he might only breathe in the smells of Bilda's banquet preparations.
There was neither boar nor ox, only mutton and twenty peacocks roasting slowly on spits over the open hearth. Hodge's mouth watered. His stomach growled. Normally dinner would have been served at noon, with the sun high in the sky. But today it would await the arrival of the prince. A pilfered bite of bread would have to sustain Hodge till then.
"Get you gone, boy," Bilda said. "You're underfoot something dreadful today. Go help in the Hall."
Jayne Kemp pressed a hunk of cheese into his hand and hurried him toward the door. "She's a terror today," she whispered. "Better to keep clear if you can."
And so he was off again, searching for another place he might be of assistance.
At midafternoon he ran into Fleet coming from the mews.
"There you are, brother," Fleet said. "How goes the waiting?"
"Slow," Hodge said. "Slow, slow, and slow." He looked up at Fleet. "Is there any news?"
Fleet shook his head. "None. Perhaps we'll have to feast without the prince."
"No!" Then Hodge saw the smile on Fleet's face. "You're teasing me."
"Only a bit. Don't you worry. Perhaps they're crossing the Eiderlee even now."
"Yes, and coming up the valley."
Fleet nodded. "Horses' hooves still damp from the stream."
"Across the causeway."
"Over the moat."
"Through the gate."
"They're here!" Fleet said.
Hodge glanced across the courtyard, looking to see if their words had made it so. A pair of yellow butterflies danced around each other in the glimmering air. All else was still.
"Patience," Fleet said.
"Well, they'd better hurry, or the peacocks will be all burned up."
* * *
To Hodge's dismay, Fleet's words proved prophetic — the feast was held without the prince. The afternoon passed with no sign of the royal party. The bustling anticipation that had filled the castle slowly ebbed, fading along with the dying day. Finally, Lord Selden ordered a halt to the preparations. He stood in the courtyard and boomed out his thanks to everyone. And, he said, since they had all worked so hard, they deserved to be fed. So as the sun settled in the west, the Hall echoed with the clatter and chatter of a banquet without a guest. Talk of the prince soon gave way to interest in meatier matters — namely mutton, fowl, and fish.
From the lowest knave to Lord Selden himself, they each dug into the feast with relish. And each retired that night with a belly full to bursting. Hodge, however, had ingested a good, round helping of disappointment along with the honey breads. Though his stomach was full, he burrowed into his straw bed with an empty heart.
"The prince didn't come," he whispered.
"No," Fleet said, yawning. "He didn't."
With a whoosh of wings a dark owl swept down from the rafters above and out into the night. "Good hunting," Hodge mumbled. In addition to the owl, he and his brother shared the basement floor of their corner tower with three cats, a family of swallows, and a multitude of other uncounted, unseen creatures.
"Maybe tomorrow?" Hodge asked.
But Fleet's breathing came steady and slow.
"Maybe," Hodge said, answering his own question. He nestled farther down into the straw. Soon he, too, fell asleep with the maybe echoing in his mind.
Excerpted from Hunchback by Randall Wright. Copyright © 2004 Randall Wright. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Castle Marlby,
Part II: Escape,
Part III: The Wide World,
Part IV: The World's End,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There is such a thing as being in the right place at the wrong time. This is the spot Hodge finds himself in. He lived a long, long time ago at Castle Marlby, which was once a thriving, important castle with royals, lovely ladies, shopkeepers, and all sorts of hustle and bustle going on. Now, sad to say, Castle Marlby is in a state of disrepair. There's rubbish in the courtyard, grass poking up between paving stones, and nary a sign of a lord or lady. Hodge dreams of bygone days. He also dreams of serving a prince. Albeit, anything would be better than what he does now which is about the lowest job to be found - he cleans latrines. But, what can he expect as he's a 14-year-old hunchback. Then, Hodge's fondest desire is about to be fulfilled - Prince Leo is actually coming to Castle Marlby. However, it doesn't happen the way Hodge had imagined. Rather than proudly entering the courtyard on a magnificent stallion this prince arrives after dark and, once he has arrived, no one sees him. Rumors abound, he's ill; he's held captive; he's being hidden for his own protection. Eventually, Prince Leo befriends Hodge, and the boy is so pleased by the royal's attentions that he will follow him anywhere. Although warned by his brother that the Prince is not at all what he appears to be, Hodge is blinded to the truth. This misplaced loyalty puts him in great danger. Excitement abounds as Hodge embarks on a perilous adventure.