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"Wretched girl! What are you doing?"
Madame's voice jolted Birdie to her senses, away from the world of light and beauty woven by the melody that still sang in her ears and back to the damp stone of the kitchen. She lurched to her feet, cringing at the sight of Madame's upraised hand.
"Please, Madame —"
Madame's hand landed on her ear, and the last floating notes of the melody were lost in an explosion of stinging pain. Birdie stumbled. Her feet tangled in the squat three-legged stool, tumbling her down onto the warm stone of the hearth. The flames licked at her long hair, and she scrambled away from the fire.
"Daydreamin' again? When there's work t' be done?" Madame loomed over her, hands propped on her angular hips. "Worthless! That's what you are. Worthless!"
Birdie stared numbly from the dripping wooden spoon in her hand to the pot of blackened porridge bubbling over the fire. The smell of burnt food stung her nostrils.
Madame yanked her to her feet. "What were you doing?"
Birdie opened her mouth to speak, but the words withered on her tongue. It would never do to mention the melody. Perhaps it was best to say nothing.
Madame took a step forward, bony hand held out in front of her, finger jabbing toward Birdie's face like a spear. "Mad as a night moth," she declared. "A lazy, useless, worthless child! That's what you are! Useless since the day Dalton picked you up off the road! Twelve years now, I've put up with this nonsense. And what have you done in return? Lolled around like a daisy. Spouted insane nonsense and caused endless trouble for my poor sons!"
Birdie caught sight of Kurt and Miles, the "poor sons" in question, peering at her around the door frame. Poor sons? More like two terrors. Miles stuck his tongue out before Kurt jerked him out of sight.
"Well, I've no use for a half-wit or a mad girl! A girl whose own parents didn't care enough to bother with and abandoned to the kindness of strangers ..."
The words stung more than Madame's blows, but Birdie had heard them all before. Worthless. Half-wit. Mad girl. On and on Madame's rant continued, until she could no longer distinguish the individual words.
She studied the stone floor beneath her toes, clenching her fists to hold back her rising anger. She had to get out of here ... had to get away. Without a word, she spun on her heels, pushed past the startled woman, and tore through the common room out into the clear light of day. She slammed the front door, enclosing Madame's furious shouts within the walls of the inn.
Birdie ran. Past the barn, across the dusty inn yard, and out over the hills surrounding the Sylvan Swan Inn. Autumn grass crinkled beneath her feet. Blazing orange fire flowers burst as she brushed past, exploding into wild puffs of floating petals that drifted away on the wind. She ran until she gasped for breath and stumbled to her knees in a wide open space. Sobs rose in her throat, smothering her anger, and she flung herself flat against the cool brown earth and cried into her arms.
Deep below, a sepulchral rumbling from the depths of the earth — a distant melody — rose to greet her. Warm as a summer sunrise, the song caught her up in its embrace. The tears dried on her face. Her sorrow eased. The song was familiar — she had known it all her life — and yet new and wondrous, something too great to be fully known or understood. It spiraled upward, carrying her soul to reach for the sky. Then it stopped abruptly and the melody faded away.
She sat alone on the hillside, the only noise the ordinary sounds of an autumn afternoon: the whispering of windswept grasses, the trilling whistles of the Karnoth birds winging northward to the ice and snow ere Winter Turning, and the peaceful munching of herds of sheep grazing in the troughs between one hill and the next.
Disappointment settled over Birdie. Always it was the same, every time she heard the song. Five notes without resolution. A beginning, constantly repeating, without an end. And yet the five notes were so beautiful that her heart ached at the sound, and every fiber of her being yearned to hear more.
She closed her eyes and strained to listen.
"Agh, ye tummy-grubbin' bit o' crab meat!"
Birdie bolted upright at the voice.
"Will ye not move on?"
It seemed to be coming from just over the next rise. The speaker — a man — sighed heavily. "Ye won't, eh? Then, by Turning, I'll make ye ..." There was a dull thwack followed by a yelp. When the man spoke again, his voice sounded pained. "Well fine then, have it yer own way. Here's as good a place as any t' break fer an afternoon snack. An' ye can wipe that silly grin off'n yer silly donkey face, ye pitiful blatherin' slewstop!"
A smile spread across Birdie's face. There was only one man who could invent an insult like that — traveling peddler, Amos McElhenny. "Amos!"
She broke into a run, raced to the top of the rise, and stopped, overlooking the little valley on the other side. At the bottom of the slope a tall, pack-laden donkey stood knee-deep in the grass at the base of a hallorm tree. The donkey's legs were splayed and his head bent down — an image of defiance — but of the speaker, Amos, she could see no sign.
"Amos? Where are you?"
"Birdie, lass? Is that you?" Amos appeared, sitting up out of the grass beside the donkey. He struggled to his feet and waded uphill toward her, tugging his plumed cap down over his wild red hair. He dusted the dirt off his overcoat and breeches and readjusted his belt around his stout girth. Birdie ran down the hill toward him and, a moment later, found herself engulfed in his strong hug.
"Perfect timin', lass. Couldn't be better. Just in time to join me an' old Balaam here fer a wee afternoon snack."
He released her and hustled back to the donkey, Balaam. Birdie followed as Amos undid the straps holding the packsaddle in place and let it drop to the ground. He dug through the packs and pulled out a skillet and a string of sausages.
"Gather some wood, lass, an' hurry. I'm starved."
Birdie collected fallen limbs from beneath the hallorm tree and tossed them to Amos. Then she scrambled up the tree and perched in a comfortable crook where she could look down on the peddler at work.
"But aren't you coming to the Sylvan Swan tonight, Amos?" she asked as the peddler employed his tinderbox.
"Oh, aye. O' course I am. Don't I always? Just got hungry, that's all. Decided 'twas high time fer a snack."
"With the Sylvan Swan less than a mile away?"
"Aye, lass, I've got t' eat my fill before I arrive. Ye know Madame — none too fond o' me an' my lack o' coin. Besides, who could enjoy a meal with that bollywag breathin' fire down his neck? Whew. Gives me the shivers, just thinkin' about it."
The way he said it made Birdie shiver up in the tree, and a little shower of dark green leaves sprinkled Amos's head. Whatever a bollywag was, fire-breathing certainly seemed to describe Madame. There would be flames aplenty awaiting Birdie when she returned to the inn.
She sank back against the obliging tree trunk, hugging her arms as a chill breeze snuck through the threadbare cloth of her dress and blew her dark hair back from her face, twisting it around a cluster of branches.
From his flint and steel, Amos got a spark that he slowly blew into flame, then he settled back on his heels and dropped sausages into a skillet. "Actually lass, truth is I only stopped here because old grumpy-guts-Balaam decided 'twas time fer a break. I've learned after fifteen years with that fool beast: when he makes up his mind t' somethin', there's no gettin' around it. Best t' sit back, break out the food, an' wait 'til he's ready t' move again." He chuckled to himself, and then peered at her. "Ye're quiet today, lass. What's botherin' ye?"
Birdie studied her hands. Black smudges from the hearth covered her palms. She could still hear Madame's angry tirade ringing in her ears.
Worthless. Half-wit. Mad girl.
Dare she tell Amos the truth? She only saw the traveling peddler every few weeks when he passed through the village of Hardale on his circuit. But he had always been a friend.
"Are you sure you want to know?"
"Course I want t' know."
He was the only one she could tell, and she had to tell someone. Mind made up, she peered down at him through the overlapping branches. "You don't think I'm ... insane ... do you, Amos?"
"Whatever put such an idea in yer head?" He stirred the sausage sizzling over the flames. The tantalizing aroma of cooking meat rose in the cloud of smoke, and Birdie's stomach rumbled.
"Everyone else does."
"Why d' ye say that? I mean"— Amos shifted on his heels and wiped the sweat from his brow with a red-spotted handkerchief —"why d' ye say that everyone thinks ye're insane?"
"I've heard them talking about it. They say I'm not right in the head. That something's wrong with me. And I ... well ..."
"Go ahead, lassie, spit it out."
"Well, I'm starting to wonder if they might be right. I hear things all the time, but now more than ever before. I hear ... music."
"D' ye now?" A smile creased Amos's bronze, weathered face. "Well, that's not so bad. Naught like a cheerful song t' help pass the time o' day."
"No, it's not like that." She sighed. How could she explain it to the peddler? It wasn't like the ordinary working songs farmers' wives sang in the fields, or the bawdy sea shanties drunken sailors belted out at the top of their lungs, or even the magnificent ballads traveling bards occasionally sang at the Sylvan Swan.
"It's always the same. Well," she hastened to clarify, "not exactly the same. It's the same five notes, but it always sounds different, like a different voice is singing it."
Even as she spoke, the notes echoed in her ears. The voice, a deep throaty hum like the droning of a dragonfly's wings, was joined by another, a jouncing baritone. Five notes repeated, lowest, high, middle, low, low.
Haunting, echoing, reminding.
"Do you hear it, Amos?"
The peddler solemnly shook his head.
Birdie's breath, pent up in her excitement, exhaled from her lips in an audible sigh. She dropped to the ground and sprawled on her back in the soft grass. She shouldn't be surprised at Amos's response. No one else ever heard the music.
As a child of five, she had first heard the ethereal melody floating through the summer grasses and ran inside, bursting with excitement to tell Madame. Her joy had earned a cuff to the ear. The Song returned several times as she grew up, each more real and beautiful than before, yet never remaining for long. A short spell, a breath, and then it was gone again and she knew not when it would return.
But now she heard it almost constantly. Madame scoffed at her "fantasies," and the two terrors never wearied of teasing her about it. She couldn't summon the courage to question Master Dalton on the subject, and now surely Amos too would think her insane. She must be. Why else would she hear a song that no one else could?
Amos cleared his throat, signaling the end of the conversation, stabbed a sausage link with his knife and bit into it. His face melted into a satisfied grin as he chewed slowly, soaking in the pleasure of the moment.
"Good?" Birdie sniffed appreciatively. The conversation might not have turned out as she'd hoped, but it hadn't been as bad as she'd expected either.
Amos speared another sausage and offered it to her. Her stomach rumbled — a reminder that Madame had deprived her of her last two meals. She took a bite and forced herself to chew slowly, ignoring the urge to gulp it down at once.
"Have some more, lass. There's naught t' satisfy like a belly full o' meat an' laughter, as me mother used t' say!"
After they finished eating, Amos clambered to his feet and stuffed his supplies into the packsaddle while Birdie put out the fire. The peddler tossed the packsaddle onto the donkey's high-withered back and cinched it tightly. Balaam peered over his shoulder at the mountain of packs, and an expression of resigned misery darkened his brown eyes.
Amos smacked the donkey's neck. "Reckon we're both due fer a rest. Only a few more days an' then we'll be headed home to my mother in Bryllhyn. Visit's long overdue."
Bryllhyn. Somehow the name filled her with an incredible longing. It sounded like a quaint, homey sort of place, like she always dreamed of.
Birdie rested her chin on her knees and gazed at the western horizon. It taunted and beckoned to her at the same time, whispering of lands beyond the Midlands and the narrow confines of the inn, of a place beyond Madame's reach and the two terrors' mockery.
And somewhere out there, before the sky touched the sea, was the little village of Bryllhyn where Amos's mother lived.
The place Amos called home.
"How is life at the Sylvan Swan?" Amos squatted beside her, wrinkles crinkling his forehead. "Are they treatin' ye well? What about those two terrors?"
Birdie studied the ground. Somehow Amos always knew when something was wrong.
"Ah, so I've struck on it. Been gettin' ye in trouble again have they?"
Her cheeks burned. "No, it was my fault. I can't ever seem to get anything right."
She was about to say more, but the music drifted over her and she felt silent, spellbound by the beauty of the five repeated notes. Then a second voice joined in with a different melody. Dark and terrible, a hideous distortion of the first song. It wrapped around her like a plume of smoke, draining the air from her lungs.
"Lassie? What's wrong?"
"Did ... did you just hear that?"
He shook his head.
"The song," she insisted. "Didn't you hear it?"
"Lassie, I —"
A thought leapt into her mind. "Perhaps if I sing it for you!" She jumped up and opened her mouth to sing. For the first time the melody poured from her lips, pure and golden like drops of liquid sunlight. The effect was startling, even to her.
Silence fell upon the hillside. The crisp autumn breeze stilled. The swaying grasses froze. High above, birds halted amid flight, hanging motionless in the vast blue sea. She shuddered under the sudden weight, as if everything was pressing in around her, drawing near to watch and listen. Even the trees seemed to have bent over, dipping their gnarled boughs in silent but rapt attention.
A hand clapped over her mouth. "Stop it, lassie," Amos hissed in her ear. "Stop it now!" He removed his hand slowly, eyes darting to scan the horizon. Worry and fear marred his white face, and his hands trembled as he let them fall to his side.
Birdie stared in astonishment. Amos frightened?
"What was that?" he demanded. "Some kind o' witchery?" Sweat beaded his forehead.
She shook her head but could find no words.
He grasped her by the shoulders, searching her face with his eyes. "Where did ye hear that song? Who taught it t' ye? Does Dalton know about this?"
"Nobody taught it to me." She swallowed to moisten her dry throat. "I just heard it."
"Well, ye mustn't sing it again."
"I don't understand."
He released her and sank heavily to the ground. "That song. 'Tis unnatural. 'Tisn't right. There's somethin' about it that reeks o' ... I don't know! Ye just mustn't sing it, d' ye understand? Never again."
The deep-throated whinny of a horse broke into the conversation. Birdie spun around. Beside her, Amos stood, fumbling for a weapon, finding nothing but the knife at his belt.
A mounted stranger reined his horse to a stop before them. He was clad in black armor and wore a long silver cape that hung down to his booted feet. The visor of his helmet was raised, revealing a swarthy face shadowed by a black beard. A thin-bladed sword rested in an ornamented scabbard at his side. His left hand flashed in movement, and the sword sprang forth, red-stained tip pointing toward Amos and Birdie.
Hand on Birdie's arm, Amos slowly sidestepped toward Balaam, pulling her with him.
The stranger's voice halted any further movement. "Drop your weapon." His horse — a massive, armored creature with an odd, reddish-black mane and tail — danced in place, but he scarcely seemed to notice, moving with the horse like a tree swaying in the wind.
Amos growled and his gaze flickered from side to side. The stranger's horse screamed — such a wild, harsh sound Birdie had never heard before — and reared, pawing at the sky. Amos threw down his knife and yanked Birdie behind the protective shield of the donkey's protruding belly. Balaam hee-hawed nervously but did not move.
"Send the girl over here," the stranger commanded in a cool, distant voice. "I want to talk to her."
"Stay still," Amos mouthed at Birdie. His right hand inched toward the packsaddle. "No need," he called out to the stranger. "She can talk just fine from here."
Birdie rose on her toes to peer over the tall donkey's back. The gray horse snorted and pawed the ground. A leather skirt, patch-worked with metal plates, covered the horse's chest and rump, while a metal mask concealed its face from view — for protection probably — but it made the steed look sinister, like a statue rather than a living beast.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Orphan's Song"
Copyright © 2014 Gillian Bronte Adams.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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