By Pat Walsh
Chicken House, 2010
$16.99, ages 8 and up, 336 pages
After rescuing a hobgoblin in Foxwist Wood, a servant boy discovers a terrible curse that could shake the church to its foundations and doom a stricken man to an eternity of torment.
When William Paynel, a 14-year-old orphan working at the Crowfield Abbey, goes into the woods to collect firewood, he stumbles upon a hob whose leg's been mangled in a trap and learns about a long-guarded secret.
As William nurses the hob back to health with the aid of his friend Brother Snail, the hob tells him that long ago two brothers at the abbey hid the body of a mysterious winged creature in the wood.
The creature, said to have "skin the color of shadows on snow" and to stand as tall as a hut, was killed by an ancient evil fay for rescuing another hob the fay was hunting.
Now a hundred years later, whispers from the spirit world are telling hobs that the evil fay, the Dark King, has returned to Foxwist and will be forcing all hobs who live alone to join the king's court or be hunted to the death.
Back at the abbey, strange things are happening as well. William overhears a visitor frantically tell to the prior that someone is asking in town about a dead angel, which Williams realizes must be the winged creature from long ago.
William confides what he's heard to Brother Snail, who confirms the story of the dead angel and leads William to a casket locked away in the abbey. Inside is a feather the monks discovered after burying the angel.
Until now, Crowfield's curse, the secret of the angel, had been well-concealed. Brother Snail warns that if word gets out that an angel can die like a mortal creature, people may no longer think God is immortal and their faith in Him could be lost.
While this is going on, two peculiar guests finagle their way into lodging at Crowfield. The abbey is so poor that the prior Ardo feels he cannot refuse them, though no one is pleased that they've come.
One is a wealthy benefactor named Jacobus Bone, who hides behind a cloak, and the other is his manservant, a scar-faced man named Shadlock, with startlingly white skin and unsettling eyes.
Both have a strange interest in William and believe he knows something about the angel, though William can't imagine why. He is but a servant, orphaned a year and half ago after his family perished in a fire.
While being questioned by Bone, William sees that Bone has leprosy and is horrified. He confides this to the hob, who realizes Bone and his manservant are two legendary figures cursed by the Dark King.
Shadlock, once a great warrior of a benevolent fay queen, was exiled from her court hundreds of winters ago for unknown reasons, while Bone, a human, was cursed by the Dark King to never die.
Long ago, the queen cast a spell to make Bone her minstrel, the most gifted musician in the land, and her enemy, the Dark King, decided to punish her for this by inciting a bloody war between their two courts.
When neither side won, the Dark King took revenge on Bone by making him a leper, which ruined the hand he used to play a golden lute. He then made Bone immortal so he would suffer for an eternity.
The hob suspects the Dark King's fays are following Bone and Shadlock, and now Bone is drilling William about pictures from a page of a religious book and wants him to lead him to where the dead angel is buried. Buy why William?
Though William suspects there's something different about himself, he's not sure what. All he knows is that he escaped a fire no one else in his family could and after he rescued the hob, an old woman told him he has the Sight.
Then, just as William worries Bone and Shadlock will force him to give them answers he doesn't have, the monks tell William to take the abbey's pigs into the woods to forage -- a strange request given that the ground is nearly bare.
Normally William would jump at the chance to get away from the abbey, especially with Bone and Shadlock pressuring him, but he knows that the Dark King's fays are roaming the wood and would think nothing of killing intruders.
Armed with a twig of rowan, iron nails and other tokens to ward of evil fays, William heads into the woods, but who is that following him through the fog?
William may have to brave the haunted Whistling Hollow if he's to make it out alive.
Wonderfully atmospheric, Walsh's debut makes you feel you're right with William, slipping around the abbey and into the chilly woods. You can almost feel the crunch of the forest floor underfoot and droplets of fog on your cheeks.
This is a perfect mystery book to curl up with on a drizzly fall day.