Music of the Distant Stars (Aelf Fen Series #3)by Alys Clare
The new 'Lassair' mystery from the author of the 'Hawkenlye' books - Very early one summer morning, Lassair slips out of her Fenland village on a deeply personal mission and discovers the body of a young woman, hidden where it has no place to be. The girl's identity is quickly discovered but, as she wonders who killed her and why, Lassair swiftly becomes mystified and frightened. Why did a sweet-natured seamstress have to die? Suspicion soon creeps uncomfortably close to home; then another body is found . . .
Apprentice healer Lassair, who lives in the small Fenland village of Aelf Fen, makes a visit to her grandmother's grave and is presented with yet another mystery.
Lassair's granny is buried on an island in the fens. Lassair's visit reveals the body of a lovely young pregnant woman hidden in the grave. Lassair hurries to Lakehall, the home of the local lord Gilbert de Caudebec, who announces that Sir Alain de Villequier, a Norman lord, has recently been appointed Justiciar for the area. The dead girl is Ida, a talented seamstress beloved by most, who is visiting Lakehall with her mistress lady Claude de Seés, who is betrothed to Villequier. Lassair is not only a talented healer but also has some mystical powers; these, along with her curious nature, make her the perfect person to investigate the murder. A visit to Ida's village reveals she was loved by an older married man, but he could not have been the father of her child. Lassair's brother is in love with Zarina, whose large childlike brother adored Ida. Lady Claude seems devastated by the death, but she is in truth a strange woman who wanted to be a nun but was forced by her mother to accept Villequier. Lassair roams far and wide searching for clues, but more murderous attacks will occur before the truth is revealed.
Clare's Aelf Fen series (Mist Over the Water, 2009, etc.) offers a charming combination of the mysterious and mystical; the third volume continues in the same vein.
Read an Excerpt
Music of the Distant Stars
By Alys Clare
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2010 Alys Clare
All rights reserved.
As I crept out of Edild's house, careful not to wake my exhausted aunt, I glanced up and saw the first faint, silvery light beginning to extinguish the stars. I have lived in the fens all my life, but there are some moments when the immensity of the vast skies can still take my breath away, and this was one of them.
It was very early, for Midsummer Day had only just passed and the nights were short. I fastened the door behind me, again ensuring I did not make a sound. For many nights now, Edild had barely slept, and I knew she would make herself ill if she did not rest. When I left, she was lying curled up like a cat on the hearth. She would have hated me to say so, but she was snoring; quite softly and musically, but nevertheless snoring.
Isn't it funny how we all vehemently deny something that probably every one of us does?
I had made my preparations the previous evening before I went to bed. Edild had explained exactly what I must do and, once she had convinced herself that I was up to the task, she had seemed very relieved that in the morning it would be me, not her, who would slip out at first light to do what had to be done. As for me, I was both thrilled because my aunt and teacher had deemed me worthy, and tense with anxiety about the grave responsibility entrusted to me.
I crept into the shadow of the little outhouse next to where the hens were penned up for the night. By touch, I located the shallow dish of water in which I had placed my flower garland and retrieved it. I checked in my leather satchel to ensure that all the other objects I would need were safely packed, then, taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to slow my racing heartbeat, I set off along the track that led out of the village.
Like my aunt, the majority of Aelf Fen was still fast asleep. I heard not a sound, and I saw not a single small, flickering light. I stopped for a moment, looking down the road to where my parents' house stood, at the opposite end of the village, and I knew instinctively that my father was awake. I concentrated hard, visualizing his familiar, beloved face that now wore the signs of grief, and I sent him my love. We are close, my father and I, and I am quite sure he received my silent message of support.
Then I hitched up my satchel, steadied the flower wreath on the palm of my hand and went on my way.
I had perhaps a mile to go; possibly a little more. As I walked, keeping up a good swift pace, I tried to ignore the shadowy places under the clumps of willow and alder and concentrate on the faint path that wound this way and that ahead of me, as clear to my eyes as if it had been cast out of moonlit silver. I am a dowser and, besides having the knack of finding underground water sources and lost objects, I have discovered that in some inexplicable way I can see hidden tracks and pathways that are all but invisible to others. Recently, I had even managed to locate a safe way across the waterlogged fens, but I was under severe stress at the time and I'm not at all sure I could repeat the achievement.
The track I was following that morning was ancient; as ancient as our family's habitation of Aelf Fen. Sixteen generations ago, Faol the Wolf Warrior took to wife Ligach the Pearl Maiden of the Fens, whose line had been fen folk since the beginning of time. Ligach's revered ancestor Aelfbryga spoke with the spirits, and they showed her the secret way to Aelf Fen. They taught her magical skills, including how to build an artificial island out in the black waters of the mere. I had long known this – we treasure our past and our bards keep it alive for us, telling us the tales of our ancestors so that they are almost as familiar to us as our living kin – but, when first I was told of it, I well recall how surprised I was to learn that Aelfbryga's island still existed. It was my destination this morning. Haunted by the spirits, seeming to vanish at times into the mist on the water and then reappear in a sudden shaft of sun or moonlight, it is a place so full of magic that it never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and send shivers right through my body.
I was close to the island now. I was still excited, still anxious. In addition, I was now terrified.
Suddenly, my feet seemed to freeze to the ground and I could not move. I stood on the narrow path, my heart thumping so hard that it hurt. I could hear my teeth chattering, although the thinly-lit morning was not cold and I was snugly wrapped in the lovely shawl that my sister Elfritha had made for me. My fear threatened to master me. Aelf Fen was far behind me, too far for any cry of mine to reach the ears of any drowsy villager. The path still glowed faintly, but on either side the land was clothed in its thick-leafed summer foliage, providing far too many places where someone bent on harming me could hide.
I was not afraid of ill-intentioned humans, however. The entities I dreaded had no need of hiding places, for they were, I was quite sure, perfectly capable of invisibility. They could creep up on me without my suspecting a thing, and the first I would know was when icy fingers clutched at my throat and supernaturally strong arms thrust my head down into the black waters till I drowned and went to join their grey, shimmering company ...
With a great effort I commanded myself not to be so fanciful and cowardly. I was there for a purpose: a very special, very important purpose. I had a task to fulfil, which had been entrusted to me because I had been deemed worthy, and that was a great honour. Was I going to turn tail and run back to the village, knock on my aunt's door in a melt of tears and moan that I couldn't do it – oh please, please, don't make me – because I was too scared?
No. I wasn't.
I had faced danger before, more than once. Someone had tried to drown me in the sea and I had survived. I had attacked an armed man and had the scar on my face to remind me. I thought about these occasions, and slowly my courage began to come back. I managed one step, then another. Soon I was walking on towards the artificial island. Moving slowly, yes, but nonetheless going in the right direction.
The reeds and rushes of the fenland vegetation on either side of the path thinned, and I could see out across the water. Daylight was waxing strongly now; it would not be long before the first thin arc of the sun came up in the eastern sky. Ahead of me, in the west, night still had command; the three great stars – Vega in the constellation of the Lyre, the Swan's Tail in the Swan, and Altair in the Eagle – shone out brightly, forming the familiar and beloved summer triangle. Pausing briefly to twist round and hold up my face towards morning, I turned and walked on.
Now I could see the stakes that marked out the path to the island. Our ancestors drove them down deep into the black mud, fixing bracing struts between them on which the sawn lengths of timber were laid, making a secure way across the water. The timbers and the bracing struts are taken away when not in use and, unless you knew, you would not appreciate the secret purpose of the stakes, for they are set at random intervals, they are of different lengths and emerge from the water at a variety of angles to the surface of the mere.
The struts and timbers were there now because we needed access to the island, and we would continue to do so for many days to come. This was our burial island, where the most revered of our people were interred. My great -grandfather Leofric and his wife Aedne were there, lying together for all eternity in the same grave. Beyond the slight hump that marked the precious place lay Ceadda, the Keeper of Swans, and Vigge, who died defending Edmund, King of the East Angles. Over on the far side of the island, where land melted into water, were the most ancient graves, among them Beretun the Cunning Man, and Yorath the Young Wife, who married her teacher. It was our lasting sorrow that many of our greatest warriors did not lie among their kin; my father's two uncles, for example, Sagar Sureshot and Sigbehrt the Mighty Oak, died at Hastings and their bodies were never found.
There was a new grave on the island, a snug little furrow dug in the rich black earth and covered over with a flat slab of stone. Within lay a small body wrapped in linen and strewn with the flowers of early summer. Prayers had been said for the deceased, and more pleas would be added in the days to come. Gifts had been put in the grave alongside the body for, despite the priests of the new religion, we adhere to the old ways and send our dead on into the afterlife with the possessions they most treasured during their life on earth. I had come this morning with a fresh flower garland to arrange on the stone slab over the place where the wrapped head of the corpse lay. I had also brought the symbols of earth, air, fire and water, for I intended to summon the spirits of North, East, South and West to aid me in my prayers. As I set my feet on the timbers that seemed to float on the dark water, in my mind I went over what I was going to say and do.
I was concentrating so hard as I approached the stone slab over the grave that at first I did not appreciate that anything was wrong.
'— and take to rest the soul of our beloved ...' I was muttering aloud.
Then my eyes succeeded in getting the horror they were seeing through to my brain. I stopped in mid-sentence and let out a cry of fear and dismay.
Someone had moved the stone slab.
We had left it so that it neatly and completely covered the grave. Now it was askew; only slightly, but enough that there was a dark corner where you could see right down into the grave.
I was shivering, filled with unreasoning abhorrence at the thought of that recently-dead body lying there so close to me. With the stone slab out of alignment, I could have reached into the grave and touched the cold flesh ...
'Stop it!' I commanded myself, my voice loud with distress. 'That is the body of someone you loved very dearly. It isn't some fearful object, to make you shudder!'
The trembling slowly stopped. As panic receded a little, another frightful worry occurred to me: why had the slab been moved? Oh, oh, what had they done?
Without thinking what I was doing, I was on my knees, pushing the slab so that the gap increased. As soon as I could, I lowered my head and stared into the grave.
The linen-shrouded corpse was still there, and the precious belongings lay around it. The flowers had not been touched and had a little life left in them.
But there was a very vital alteration to the grave's contents. We had left there one body, small and thin. Now there were two.
My Granny Cordeilla was dead.
We had all known it was going to happen but, as we always do with those we love, we prayed in our different ways for a miracle. Well, I don't believe Granny prayed for any such thing; she seemed to know her time on this earth was coming to an end, and she approached death with a calm serenity and a slight sense of curiosity. 'I'm tired, Lassair child,' she said to me in one of her last moments of lucidity. 'I've had a long, hard life and now I'm ready for a rest.' She must have seem the unshed tears in my eyes, for all that I tried to turn away, for she took my hand in hers – her grasp, so weak where once it had been so strong, almost undid me – and whispered softly, 'No weeping, child. You'll miss me and you'll be sad for a while, but there's no tragedy in the death of an old woman. It's the way of things.'
With that she lay back on her pillows and went to sleep. Over the next day and night her sleep deepened and we watched as she slipped away. Then we stood around her body, our hands joined, and we wept.
My father – her son – had seen the change in her before any of us, and this quite irked my aunt Edild, my father's sister, because she's meant to be the healer and my father is an eel fisher. It quite irked me too, I have to admit, because I am Edild's apprentice and, like her, ought to have spotted the signs. In our defence, neither of us had seen Granny as often as my father, for Granny had lived with him, my mother and my siblings, whereas I live with Edild in her neat little house on the other side of the village. However, even if we'd observed Granny all day and every day, I'm not sure if we'd have picked up whatever subtle signals my father had seen; it's probably a mother–son thing. Of Granny Cordeilla's five children, he was her favourite, and that was probably why she'd chosen to live with him and his family instead of with Ordic, Alwyn, Edild or Alvela. As for my father, he is an undemonstrative man, but we all know his emotions run deep and true. He would have done anything for his mother, and his grief at her death was none the less for being hidden. My mother, sensible woman that she is, let him alone. She understands my father very well; better, probably, than Granny did, but it would be a brave person who said so in my father's hearing. To have said it in Granny's hearing would have been tantamount to suicide.
Anyway, whatever it was that my father saw, he'd kept it to himself ... or, more likely, Granny had sworn him to secrecy. Some time later – a few weeks, according to my father – Granny had a fall. Then she had another one. This time, when she came round from her swoon, or whatever it was, she did not know where she was. She recognized us, although she muddled up some of our names, but she seemed to be seeing things that were invisible to the rest of us. She urged my brother Haward to find a bale of straw to sit on and get a good place so that he could watch the travelling jugglers and tumblers. She kept telling my mother that they were listening to our conversations and we must be careful. Then she had another fall, banged her poor head and lay insensate on her cot for three days.
When she woke up she was herself again. She commanded my father to summon all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – most of them were already there, hovering around my parents' little house and not really knowing what to do with themselves – and called all of us to her bedside in turn, in order of age, so that she could speak privately to us. Well, I don't suppose she had much to say to my niece and my nephew, since one is a toddler and the other a baby, but the rest of us were with her for some time. I've no idea what she said to everyone else, but when it was my turn, she made me sit down beside her cot and, her deep eyes fixed on my face so that I did not dare move a muscle, said quietly, 'Lassair, child. Yes.' She nodded and then paused, watching me closely. 'When I was a girl I was sent to live with my uncle, Leir the Bard.'
I knew that already. Granny was a wonderful bard herself, always much in demand when we all sat round the fire in winter and there wasn't much to do through the long hours of darkness, and she had told me many times that her great fund of legends, myths, stories and the all-important record of our family's history and the doings of the ancestors were taught to her by her uncle Leir, after whom my youngest brother is named. 'Yes, Granny, I —'
She held up her hand to silence me. 'When he died, my uncle Leir summoned me to his deathbed. I was older than you, child, with a family of my own, for Leir was a long-lived man. He called me for one purpose, and it was not to say his fond farewells.' There was a twinkle in Granny's eyes as if somewhere deep inside she was laughing. 'Can you think what it was?'
I believed I could, but I hesitated to say so because it would have sounded big-headed and I'd have felt a fool if I'd been wrong. 'Er —' I began.
With a flash of her old impatient self Granny said, 'It's no time for false modesty, child. I'm dying, and I've still got two of your brothers and Goda's pair to see yet. Come on, say what you're thinking.'
I took a breath to steady myself. 'You want me to become a bard.' There. I'd said it. I felt my face, neck and throat flush with the sudden rush of hot blood.
'No, Lassair,' Granny said softly.
I hung my head, shame flooding me. How had I dared to presume to take on Granny's role, to think I could fill the shoes of one such as her? Why —
'Look at me.'
I made myself meet Granny Cordeilla's eyes. They were crinkled up in a smile, and she was looking at me with such love that a sob broke out of me. Her hand made a small movement where it lay on the clean linen sheet and, realizing what she wanted, I took it between mine. Hers was cool.
Excerpted from Music of the Distant Stars by Alys Clare. Copyright © 2010 Alys Clare. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Alys Clare divides her time between Tonbridge, England-in the area where "Tavern in the Morning" is setand her ancient stone cottage in Brittany. The author of two previous Hawkenlye mysteries, "Fortune Like the Moon" and "Ashes of the Elements," she has also studied archaeology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
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a must to read and enjoy. one of my favorite writers.