Thursday, October 20, 2011
Sample chapter from Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski
• prologue •
They executed a werewolf in one of my father’s
inland villages the week I left. There was no question about his guilt; he’d been
taken, in wolf shape, among the flocks, and put in a cage till morning, together with the clothes he’d left hidden in a hollow tree. Nobody saw him change back, but he was found fully clothed in the cage next day, wild-eyed, howling in agony and shaking the bars.
I suppose he could have stayed in his wolf shape, but the villagers knew who he was. It was important to be sure before they did anything; they knew my father would insist on proof, and his dead body alone would not give that proof. Witnesses were needed as well.
It wasn’t illegal to be a werewolf in our region, though it was not much liked, but this one had been destroying the flocks the villagers lived on, and a little girl had been found with her throat torn out. As lord, Father was forced to condemn Pierre – a boy not much older than myself – but he didn’t like it. Neither of us could look into those haunted eyes.
‘I feel sorry for the wretch, Etienne,’ he told me as we rode away, leaving some soldiers to do the dirty work of the execution and the village priest to bless it. ‘He can’t help himself; he was born that way.’
‘Father?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘I heard there’s a race of shape-changers.’
My father gave a sharp bark of laughter. ‘Yes, I’ve heard that too. Perhaps, but I think it’s legend. There are tales of robber barons who signed pacts with the Dark One centuries ago, to make them invincible in their conquests, and their descendants would have the curse; perhaps that’s the origin of that tale. In this case, I suppose someone made a pact far more recently, probably Pierre’s father. He was a wander- ing mercenary who came and went. Many of them are werewolves; it’s useful in their profession. The lords who hire them value their strength and fero- city and they make excellent spies and scouts. They are paid almost double the fee of a normal soldier. Unfortunately, their offspring are often born with the hairy curse – and, as it doesn’t show up till they reach manhood or womanhood, it takes a while for them to be caught. If Pierre’s father had taken him along, he might be learning the soldier’s trade now and be honoured for his abilities. Instead . . .’ He sighed and shrugged. ‘It’s a harsh world, Etienne.’
I was to remember the incident later.
• chapter one •
I hadn’t wanted to go to Lucanne for my training. I didn’t see the point. I had already learned plenty from my father and it was his holding where I would be lord one day. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to be a famous warrior. Other things were more important to me.
‘It’s not about being a famous warrior,’ my father had said firmly. ‘It’s about doing your duty as lord to your people. You’re my only son. The kingdom has only you to do what must be done here. I hold these lands of Lord Geraint, and he is the best man to finish your education. And once a year, when you’re Lord of Jervaux, you’ll have to do your duty to the King. These are not the peaceful times when the Rom folk protected us. You’re military caste, lad. Live with it.’
And I was living with it. But I was living with something else, too. Something I hadn’t discussed with my father, something I feared would come out while I was far from my family’s protection. Even if it didn’t, and I returned to marry some neighbour’s daughter, what if it happened afterwards? Happened to my children, if not me?
When I was eight, I got into a fight with the stew- ard’s son and bit him. After we’d both been punished, my mother took me aside.
‘Etienne, you mustn’t ever do that again. The time might come when someone will remember and hold it against you.’
‘Gilbert will hold it against me,’ I’d said, rather proudly to be honest.
‘Yes, he will, but that’s not why.’ She had sent her women to work in the stillroom, and we were alone. Now she picked up her shuttle and continued with her weaving. ‘Listen, Etienne, I come from Lafranc. Your father and I were betrothed at an early age, as our families wished. But there were . . . things . . . my parents never told his parents about our ancestors. It might have led to a cancellation of the marriage contract. And you must never tell your father. He’ll worry and it’s likely that it will never matter. My great-grandfather’s brother was . . . hairy. Very hairy. He disappeared regularly and then . . . he never returned. I think I know why, though I can’t be sure. It happens in the best of families. But in Lafranc, what he was might have led to his death, even if he never did anything wrong. If it happens to you . . . well, we mustn’t give anyone any excuses, do you understand?’
I didn’t understand at the time, though I promised her what she wanted. Later, I heard from my tutor about the race of shape-changers.
Then I panicked.
Armand, the head page at Lucanne, took me tothe kitchen and introduced me to the staff. I would be getting to know them well enough in my duties. An older woman named Lise ran the kitchens effi- ciently, as she had to in a place with so many mouths to feed.
We ate leftover cold meat with bread and sipped cups of ale in a corner of the room, talking while work continued around us.
Armand told me about his home.
‘We only have one manor, near the mountains south of here,’ he said. ‘My sisters won’t have much in the way of dowries. Maybe when I earn my spurs and go home I can persuade my father to let me travel to Lafranc for some bigger mares and a stallion. All we have at home are ponies and you can’t ride those in armour. Well, I can’t!’ He gestured at himself and I nodded. Armand was a tall boy. ‘In Lafranc they have the descendants of Rom cavalry horses. Maybe if my family can breed some, we can earn the money for my sisters’ dowries and I can pay for some real armour . . . What about you?’
‘I’m from the coast,’ I said. ‘Our castle is one of a line protecting the country from invaders, but I don’t remember anything except Ibernian pirates; they turn up every summer and we throw them back. Still, you never know. My parents remember when we had real invaders, Saesneg like the ones who invaded the Djarnish Isles centuries ago. Jervaux is a fishing town. I’m here to finish my education, not start it . . . I suppose my sisters will have dowries enough from our other manors. We have four, one of them not far from here, which my father holds of Lord Geraint. I haven’t seen it in years, though.’
‘And what do you want to do when your education is over?’
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. ‘It doesn’t matter what I want. I’ll return and protect the fishermen and do my military duties when called upon and marry – probably a girl from one of the near estates, but I don’t know who she will be yet. Perhaps I’ll write down some of the legends of the Jervaux coast.’
He stared. ‘You can write? And you aren’t going to be a priest?’
I laughed. ‘Everyone in my family writes and reads, my mother insisted on it. She even taught my father how. A priest? No, thank you! Anyway, it isn’t an option. I’m an only son. We’re in Notzrian territory and their priests don’t marry.’
I wondered if I could ask him about this place without it sounding like gossip. I was going to be here for the next few years; I wanted to know. Gilles, the Lucanne steward who had brought me here from home, had spoken nonstop, but hadn’t said much I was interested in hearing.
‘Tell me about this place,’ I asked, ‘please? We met Lord Geraint on the road here. He was on his way to fight and Gilles went after him as soon as he had left me here.’
Lord Geraint was quite old, I had noticed – at least thirty – but powerfully muscled under his old- fashioned armour, and he wore his long black hair braided for convenience. He was also incredibly hairy. I had noticed that first.
Armand smiled. ‘Oh, Lord Geraint is good to work for, a good master and teacher. And did you notice his horse? It’s a white mare from Beran, a real beauty. If I could get a few like her for our herds . . .’
‘Most knights only want to ride stallions. What was the fight about?’
He shuddered. ‘Nasty. There’s this baron called Dupré who treats his peasants like beasts. The King gave some of Dupré’s lands to Lord Geraint, but he won’t accept that. We got a message saying he and his mercenaries were burning out the villages on his former lands. That’s why this place is so quiet today.’
‘Mercenaries?’ I asked. ‘What about his levies?’
‘Didn’t you hear what I said about the way he treats his peasants? They’d be useless to him. And nobody holds lands of him if they can avoid it.’
‘Come, let’s go see our lady.’ ‘Thank you . . . It is quiet, isn’t it? Have all the men gone to the fight?’
He sighed. ‘They should have taken me along. I’m good enough, I know I am. Instead, here I am with the women and children!’
I had nothing to say to that. He was a big lad and would probably be starting as an armour-bearer soon
enough. It was understandable that he was eager to be with the men. I found a spot in the boys’ sleeping quarters for my clothes and bedding and fumbled my exhausted way from my dusty travelling clothes into something more presentable, washing the dust from my face and combing my tangled hair with my fingers. It had been a long day, but it wasn’t over yet.
We set out for Dame Eglantine’s solar. Here and there a tapestry hung on the wall, but more to keep out the cold than to decorate the place. This was a working castle; every part of it had a function. My own home was just as practical. With the Ibernians always raiding there was no choice. I felt a little less homesick.
Up some steps beyond the great hall, which was comfortably cluttered with the household war- riors’ living-spaces, lay Dame Eglantine’s solar. She had tried to make it fashionable. There was actually a glass window – a small one, of course – which must have cost a fortune to bring here. She sat prettily among her fosterlings, sewing something attractive but not especially useful; all the real work was being done by the girls and her two waiting-women. She was young – about nineteen, I guessed – recently married according to my father, golden-haired and pretty. Her hands were white, not roughened by work. She had a carefully cultivated air of help- lessness. I supposed it was expected of girls at the Lafrancan court, as she had been. Our lord Luiz was a warrior king and had to be, with the troubles at home and the constant danger of invasion, but those nobles with kin across the mountains in Lafranc sent their daughters to that court, where they could enjoy frivolities they couldn’t have at home. My own mother had gone for a short time, though she had never been affected by it.
My mother regularly got up before dawn to look after a household the size of six inns. If she wasn’t getting in the harvest, helping the steward with the accounts or making sure there was enough preserved food for the winter, she was weaving, working in her stillroom on medicines, or tending sick house- hold members or villagers. She was the second line of defence in war and had once, before my birth, successfully defended the castle against Saesneg raiders while Father was doing his annual military duties for the King.
If Eglantine was capable of any of that, she hid it well. Frankly, looking at her, I doubted it. My
homesickness began to return. What kind of place is this? I wondered.
There was a not-very-good musician playing as I entered, singing some sentimental love song; he sounded as if he’d rather be playing bloodthirsty sagas. Eglantine waved a white hand to bid him pause and looked over at me.
‘Who is this, Armand?’
‘Etienne de Jervaux, Madame. You asked to see him.’
‘Ah, yes. I forgot. It’s easy to forget here. One day is like another. Welcome, child. Come here.’
I went, irked by the ‘child’. I’d spent a long time at home, where I was needed, before coming here to finish my education. I was only a few years younger than her.
‘You’re rather old to be starting your fostering, aren’t you?’
‘My father needed me, Madame. I began my training with him.’
‘Ah. Let’s see, your father’s the Lord of Jervaux, on the coast . . . Your mother was at the Lafranc court with my mother some years ago.’ She sighed. ‘I was there too. One misses it. So much culture. The latest fashions . . . Does your mother keep up?’
‘I don’t think so, Madame,’ I said as politely as I could. I wondered how she could be worrying about fashions and culture while her husband was off fighting, maybe getting killed.
‘Well, we’ll look after you here,’ she assured me. Her girls giggled. She waved to the musician to go on.
‘Come on,’ Armand said kindly, ‘let’s rest for now. We’ll be busy later, when Sire Geraint comes back. He’ll bring the neighbours with him.’
We waited the rest of the day for the soldiers’ return, and most of the night. I was rousted out of my bed when they came in, as we had to help serve food and drink to the hungry, exhaus- ted fighters, while the wounded were attended. There was a kind of late supper, with the kitchen staff finding cold meats and bread from the day before.
I caught a glimpse of the enemy lord, who was brought in, chained, on his way to imprisonment in the cells below.
The Baron was a huge, hairy bear of a man, with a smell like a wild beast and muscles like rocks. His fur cloak was heavy enough – and smelly enough – to be armour in its own right. It would have been easy to mistake him for just another oaf if you hadn’t seen his eyes. I was unlucky enough to see his face as he turned it towards his captor; if the Netherworld was cold instead of hot, you would have seen it in those two chips of ice glaring at Geraint.
‘I am entitled to better treatment than this, de Lucanne! I demand my knightly entitlements.’
‘You forfeited your entitlements,’ Sire Geraint said flatly, ‘when you slaughtered helpless peasants. If you’d behaved like a knight, you wouldn’t have lost those villages in the first place. You can explain it all to His Grace next week.’ He gestured his men to take the Baron away. As far as he was concerned, that was the end of it.
I watched as the Baron went; Geraint had turned to his guests, but Dame Eglantine was staring at the prisoner like a bird at a snake. He glanced back at her, sensing her fear, and opened his mouth in a silent, mocking laugh.
Little bird, that look said, I’m going to eat you, bones and all. He turned away, leaving a chill like a snowy night behind, as if someone had opened the hall door; even his guards were clearly uncomfortable.
Eglantine cringed and huddled against her husband’s side; he took it for a display of affection and squeezed her hand, then spoke to two other warriors.
‘You’re welcome here, Sire Jean and Sire Balin. Without your help, we might not have taken this murderous scum.’
Eglantine gulped, but pulled herself together. I felt my first twinge of sympathy for her. ‘I welcome you here also, gentlemen. Anyone who helps my hus- band is always welcome in our hall. Please sit and eat . . .’
‘Well, he was devastating my lands too,’ Sire Jean said, sitting where indicated. He was a middle-aged man with a red beard and twinkling eyes. ‘A good thing my nephew was here, eh?’
Unlike the other men, Balin didn’t look like a warrior. He hadn’t had time to clean up, so he was soaked with sweat and his clothes were torn, but they had once been elegant. He was about twenty- two and smooth-skinned, with a cap of black hair and grey eyes in a clean-shaven face. He was certainly the kind who dressed fashionably.
‘For how long are you visiting?’ She waved me over to bring him the water-ewer and another boy the wine.
‘Permanently, Madame,’ Balin answered, ‘or at least until I can win some lands of my own. I’m a younger son, you see – very tiresome, but there it is. I didn’t fancy being a priest, so my uncle has offered me a post in his castle guard. I’m hoping to go to war in the Prince-Heir’s retinue next year; that should earn me some honours.’
They were looking at each other with interest. Sire Geraint smiled proudly at his wife, probably seeing Balin’s gaze as simple admiration of her beauty. I wonder if I’m only remembering this with hindsight? I suspect that on the night I was half-asleep, serving automatically, thinking of not much beyond return- ing to bed. I didn’t know these people; I couldn’t possibly have seen then what was going to happen.
During the meal, Dame Eglantine’s musician began to play his harp, already chanting something about the skirmish, improvised to an existing tune. Balin looked pained.
‘Forgive me, Madame . . . is this your household harper?’
‘Yes, he has been in this household for years,’ she sighed. ‘He only knows the old tunes.’
‘Would you permit me to play for the company? I know a few songs that are very popular at court just now.’
Her eyes shone. ‘Oh, please, do! Gaspard, lend Sire Balin your harp.’
But Balin waved it away. ‘I have something better.’ He snapped his fingers and a servant came forward with an instrument bag. ‘I never travel without it.’
He pulled out a pear-shaped box with a long neck and strings stretched lengthwise, and began tuning the instrument.
‘It’s from the east – called al oudh. It has a much more melodious sound than the harp. I got it in Beran, during the Holy Wars last year . . .’
‘You fought in the Holy Wars?’ she asked admir- ingly.
‘The lad went with his father,’ Sire Jean said with a chuckle. ‘I’ll wager there was more danger from flies than from Sarzins, eh, Balin?’
If looks could kill, Balin’s glare at his uncle would have stretched him flat.
‘It was hardly my fault that a peace treaty was signed two days after I arrived!’ Then he recovered himself and forced a laugh. ‘Well, perhaps I distin- guished myself enough today to be awarded some lands, hmm? And I must admit the Sarzins, when you aren’t fighting them, are fine musicians and poets. Here’s a song I learned there, my lady. I’ll try to translate it as best I can.’
He began to sing. If that song was an improvised translation, I’d eat my horse; he probably didn’t even know the original. His voice was pleasant enough, I suppose. From the expression on Eglantine’s face, she thought it a lot more than pleasant.
Of course it was a love song, something about the beloved, a shepherdess, being locked away in the king’s harem (he broke off to explain that the Sarzins had multiple wives) and the lover yearning for her outside. She went downstairs to look for him, even escaped into the city, but could not find him. It was not an appropriate piece for a single man to sing to a married woman, but it was probably every bit as popular at court as he’d said. My mother was always laughing about the stories she heard, about this new form of love that was all the rage, where the woman was always married and the beloved, a single knight (heaven help him if he dared to marry himself!), had to suffer all sorts of humiliations to fulfil her every whim.
‘It’s women’s revenge for being married off at twelve to fifty-year-old knights and becoming their property,’ she’d said more than once, smiling at Father, who was only a year or two older than her and had been betrothed to her when they were both infants.
Whatever it was, I thought it all very silly, but Eglantine lapped the song up. She gazed at Balin, chin propped on her knuckles, her blue eyes wide. Afterwards she said, ‘Oh, you must come, Sire Balin, and sing to us often! It’s such a pleasure to hear the new songs sung – and in such a voice! Don’t you think so, Geraint?’
She turned to her husband, who laughed and said, ‘Now, my dear, we mustn’t insult our poor Gaspard, who has been ignored this evening. Besides, you won’t be seeing much of any of us for a week or two. We’re going to take our prisoner to the King and tell him what has happened before he hears a differ- ent version by rumour. Gentlemen, will you stay for what’s left of the night?’
They agreed and bedding was brought to the hall for Sire Jean’s men – those who weren’t already in bed having their wounds treated. The two knights were offered a room above.
We went back to our beds and our interrupted sleep. Unable to settle immediately, I was staring through the gap in the hanging that separated us from the hall when, to my surprise, I saw Sire Geraint leaving, wrapped in a simple dark cloak. It was not totally black outside, so I recognised the outline of his head, with that distinctive braid hanging from it. For such a big man he was oddly silent, moving more like an animal than a human, not as if he was sneak- ing out but as if it was natural to him. One of the four favourite hounds that were allowed to sleep inside instead of in the kennels sniffed at him, tail wagging,
and made a tiny questioning noise: Can I come too? He put a gentle hand on her head, saying nothing, but she returned to her place and he continued on his way.
Exhausted after the long day, first travelling then being woken to serve the men when they returned, I thought no more of it and fell asleep.
Copyright © Sue Bursztynski, 2010. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.