With the Something Novel campaign in full swing, I thought maybe now would be a good time to share the first chapter of Allaigna’s Song: Overture for those who haven’t had a glimpse yet …
Allaigna’s Song: Overture
Brothers, Sisters, and Lullabies
If you walk down the grand staircase of Castle Osthegn, you will see a family portrait. It is placed across the landing from the wide steps so that your eye is drawn helplessly into the picture as you descend. Such is the skill of the Leisanmira painter that you are almost convinced the little girl on the right will jump out of the frame and take off pell-mell into the courtyard. And you can tell that is what she wanted to be doing when the image was painted.
The little girl was me.
There are other, more formal, paintings of my family members, individual and grouped, spread throughout the fortress. But the one at the bottom of the stairs is the only one that tells me a story. In this painting I am shown in my favourite red tunic of soft flannel – the one my nurse turned into handkerchiefs when I grew too large for it – and loose-fitting trousers, rolled to the calf above grubby bare feet. My mother’s arm is around me, her fingers creasing the cloth beneath my arm. It is a half-hearted grip, as if holding me still takes more effort than she can afford. Her eyes are tired and her skin pale. Wisps of curly blonde hair escape a hastily pinned coif, and the bodice of her dress is askew, barely containing blue-veined and swollen breasts.
The head of the family, Lord Osthegn, Allenis Andreg, Duke of Teillai and Warden of the Clearwater Plains, stands behind and to her right. A possessive arm rests on her shoulders; the other is proudly akimbo. He beams with joy, and this is the only portrait that paints him so. In truth, it is the happiest my three-year-old self ever saw him. The subject of his joy rests in Mother’s right arm, its bawling ruddy face showing a remarkable resemblance to the Duke already. I don’t know why the artist didn’t choose to portray the baby content at the breast or with an idiosyncratic smile as most painters would, but I’m glad he didn’t. This is how I remember my brother Allenry when he arrived to interrupt my life, and I appreciate the painting’s candour.
I recall that day, or one of those days. After sitting for the painter, I ran outside into the bustling lower court, where chickens scratched in the warm sun of late spring, men-at-arms practised sword drills, and my nurse Angeley tended the herb garden. I didn’t want to talk to her right then, so I slipped between the tight-packed limbs of the hedge maze, following my own small, secret trails to the centre. I sat down in the yellowish gravel and buried my feet in sun-warmed chippings. I had a tight, lumpy feeling in my chest and warmth behind my eyes, but I didn’t want to cry. I was not going to cry over him.
There were footsteps on the gravel, trying not to be heard.
“Go away!” I threw a handful of pebbles at the place I knew she’d appear. “Leave me alone!”
My nurse bent down and examined the stones that had tumbled on the mossy verge of the path. She turned her head to look at me, her face crinkling into laugh lines.
“It’s the Huntress, Allaigna.” She held out a sun-browned hand to me. “Come and look.”
Curiosity overcame my resistance, as she knew it would, and I crawled over to see. Her fingers picked out the constellation of stones.
“Here is her head, and shoulder. This grey-blue one is the tip of her sword and here,” she delineated an arc of pebbles, “is her bow.”
With a child’s literal obstinacy I replied, “She doesn’t have any feet.”
“Too true, Allaigna. Where do you think they are?”
I shrugged. “Over there?” I pointed to where I’d gathered the fistful of rocks.
Angeley nodded, her eyes clouding over as they did when she was deep in thought. I followed her gaze, wondering what she could see past the impenetrable green of the hedge.
“Mmm. I think you’re right dear. Now tell me: what’s the matter?”
The storm came back over me and I hunched into myself. Angeley waited, her hand resting on my back. Even today, I can sometimes feel that warmth between my shoulder blades when I need resolve.
“I hate him,” I mumbled into my knees.
“Allenry.” It wasn’t a question.
The lumpy feeling returned, and despite my best efforts, my eyes started watering.
“He ruined it!”
The tears began in earnest and Angeley lifted me into her arms, humming softly.
“I know, I know,” she murmured, “he’s taken over your Mama … for the time being. That’s what babies do, you know. Mama and Allenry need each other now. But you have me.”
I wasn’t mollified. “But you’ll be his nurse, too!”
She shook her head. “No, darling. I came to this house to help birth and raise you. Your Mama and Papa will have to find someone else to help with Allenry and their other children.”
Now I was appalled. “Other children?”
She laughed. “There will be more siblings for you Allaigna. You may get that little sister after all. You might even grow to like Allenry.”
I frowned, emphatic. “Uh – uh.”
She kissed me on the head, silencing the protest. “Never say never, dear one. Whatever you may think of him, he’s of your blood, and you will need each other one day.”
Angeley was right. I did like Allenry on and off, as siblings do, and we even became allies when our sister Lauriana usurped Mama’s body and attention once more. Not to say there wasn’t fierce competition between us. He grew quickly and it was clear he would have the bull-like physique of our father. By the time I was ten, and he six, he had the height and more than breadth of me, though I outstripped him for a while once more in adolescence. But I am getting ahead of myself.
During Allenry’s infanthood I grew farther away from my mother and closer to my nurse. She was of the Leisanmira race, and she gave me much of her knowledge of plants and animals, healing, and midwifery. But what I loved most was her singing. All my early life I could hear Angeley singing. No matter what she was doing – gardening, sewing, reading – there was a tune percolating from her throat. It was Angeley who sang my siblings and me to bed every night. Her lullabies were devastating in their effect, and it seemed at first I was never able to hear the end of one before my eyes fell shut and locked me in sleep.
Eventually though, whether it was because I was older or simply more stubborn than my brother and sisters, I learned to keep myself awake to the end of the song. This allowed me to leave my bed once the lanterns were extinguished, and perch on the window seat, reading by moonlight. It also let me to learn her songs to the end.
On a morning not long after my seventh birthday, I gained my first inkling of what those songs could do. I was in the grange loft, playing with a litter of kittens whose half-wild mother I had wooed for many weeks. I held a black bundle of fur in my arms and hummed a lullaby as it purred and nestled in. From behind me, I heard clumsy fumbling on the loft ladder.
It was Allenry. I could tell by his noisy breath and careless movements. He wasn’t allowed into the hayloft, being too young to climb safely, but that didn’t stop him.
Irritated, I wished him away, and kept my back turned. I did not want him here to interrupt my time with the kitten. With ever-louder huffing and thumping, he pulled his tiny body up through the hole in the loft floor. I sang louder, ignoring him, drowning out his presence. Gradually his stuffy-nosed breathing slowed and deepened. I could hear him yawn. I reached the final chorus of my song and at last turned a glaring eye on him. He stood, eyes closed, stubby toddler body swaying with sleep.
I watched in fascinated horror as he collapsed backward and fell down the trap door.
The next few moments were a frantic blur, and I have no idea whether I climbed or jumped down after him. He lay wailing, his face no more than a wrinkled red apple with a giant hole in its middle. I clapped a hand over his mouth, terrified someone would hear, and wrestled with the decisions every child makes at the scene of a sibling accident: whether to stay and console, to run for help, or to hide and pretend not to have seen what happened.
The decision was made as Allenry’s nurse came running in, our two-year-old sister slung across her hip.
“What have ye done? Wicked girl!” She dumped Lauriana on the barn floor and she rushed to Allenry.
Instead of answering, I ran.
Angeley found me, hours later, hidden beneath the cloth drapery that covered the table harpsichord. My tears had dried some time ago, and I was debating whether it was safe to sneak to the kitchens for some food. Angeley’s head poked beneath the woven cloth.
“Are you ready to be found yet?”
I wiped my face with a dusty sleeve, no doubt making both even dirtier. “It wasn’t my fault.”
Her eyes were piercing, but not unsympathetic. “Come out from there and tell me about it.”
We sat side by side on the harpsichord bench, my short legs swinging in time to my nervous heartbeats. I explained how Allenry had climbed into the forbidden loft – glossing over how long I’d known he was there – and tumbled backwards down the hole. The explanation seemed plausible, and was truthful as far as it went.
Angeley, as always, sensed the unsaid. “Why do you think he fell?”
“Was he clumsy?”
I looked up, hopeful at the convenient excuse, but Angeley continued.
“Did something bump him?”
I frowned, knowing that explanation, aside from being untrue, could lead me into more trouble.
“No,” I finally pushed the words out. “He … fell asleep.”
Angeley looked thoughtful. “And what were you doing.”
“Holding a kitten”
I hesitated, then blushed, the extent of my guilt sinking in. “A lullaby.”
“Again.” Angeley’s usually soft voice was sharpened with weariness.
“Do, fa, so, fa, do… do, fa, so, fa, do fa so fa do do do dodo –” I broke off giggling.
“Enough! You have a marvellously instinctive voice Allaigna, but you lack discipline!”
I winced and reached for my cup of water.
Angeley continued, sighing. “It’s not enough to sing from memory and play with your voice. You must know each note: its resonance, its flavour, its relationship to other notes –”
I interrupted with another giggle. “Which one’s the annoying brother?”
As soon as the words were out, I wished them back. The vague tint of blame I felt sure had settled on me after Allenry’s fall had not yet faded. Fortunately, of the adults in my life, Angeley was the least likely to chastise me. Her eyes narrowed and she continued as if the interruption hadn’t happened.
“How can you expect to harness a sound’s power if you release it willy-nilly into the aether without thought or guidance?”
I stayed quiet this time.
She sighed. “I push you so hard, my dear, because you have such potential.”
I saw the opportunity for a change of topic. “What do you mean? Why do I have any more … potential,” I disliked this new word, and the uncomfortable feeling of obligation that came with it, “than Allenry, or Lauriana?”
“Not more, dear. Different. Why does the oak grow taller than the ash? Why does the courser run faster than the carthorse, and why does the carthorse pull a heavier load? It’s what makes you you.”
Even at the age of seven, I knew there was more difference between a draught horse and a racehorse than between Allenry and me, but I left that point lying.
“Father can’t sing. And Mama hardly ever does. So it’s not in my blood.”
“There’s more to a person’s blood than shows in either parent, Allaigna. And besides, your mother has the same potential. She’s simply never developed it.”
“Lost opportunity.” Angeley paused, distracted for a moment. “Now, again.” She rapped the harpsichord, beating out the rhythm. “One, four, five, four, one … one, four, five, four, one….”
I began to repeat the pattern when, abruptly, she stopped me.
“Enough,” she said, closing the harpsichord. “Your sisters will be born soon.”
She bustled out of the room in a flurry of colourful skirts before I could ask her how she knew, and what in the world she meant by the extra s in “sisters”.
The full novel is due to be released in May 2017, pending successful funding of the Something Novel Kickstarter campaign. You can pre-purchase it here, along with Mel Anastasiou’s Stella Ryman and the Fairmount Manor Mysteries, or just throw a buck in the hat to help the cause.