Stolen Songbird: Malediction Trilogy Book One (The Malediction Trilogy)

BOOK: Stolen Songbird: Malediction Trilogy Book One (The Malediction Trilogy)
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Danielle L Jensen
STOLEN SONGBIRD
For MB, who started me down this path.
CHAPTER 1
 
CÉCILE
 
My voice rose an octave, resonating through the Goshawk’s Hollow marketplace, drowning out the bleating sheep and the hammer of the blacksmith down the way. Dozens of familiar faces abandoned their business, expressions uniform in their nervousness as they anticipated the note I had dreaded daily for the past month.
She
liked an audience for my failures.
A tremor raced through my body, my palms slicking with sweat. Madame Delacourte’s gaze burned between my shoulder blades, her low expectations only fueling my resolve. I would not break.
Resisting the urge to ball my hands into fists, I pushed my last breath into the crescendo of the piece. Almost there. Several people stepped forward, the words of encouragement on their lips drowned by the enormity of my song. This was when my voice broke. Always, always.
But not today.
The market erupted with cheers as I finished. “Well done, Cécile!” someone shouted, and I bobbed a little curtsey, my cheeks flushed with a sweet combination of embarrassment and delight. The echo of my song drifted off through fields and valleys tinted green with spring, and everyone went back to their business.
“Don’t go getting all puffed up in the head,” Madame Delacourte sniffed from behind me. “Impressing that lot of backwards country folk is no great feat.”
My back stiffened, and I turned to meet her wrinkled glare.
“You’re good,” she said, lips drawn tight to the point of invisibility. “But not as good as her.”
Her. My mother.
For most of my childhood, I knew almost nothing of her – the woman my father spoke of with such reverence that one would have thought her a queen. Knew only that my father had run off to Trianon in his youth, fallen in love, and married a young stage soprano named Genevieve. But when my grandfather died and my father inherited the farm, she’d refused to return with him.
“City girl who couldn’t stomach the thought of country living,” Gran always grumbled when asked about my mother. “Though what kind of woman abandons her husband and three children is beyond my reckoning.”
Abandoned was a strong word. She did visit. Occasionally. I thought for a long time she’d neglected us because she didn’t love us enough, but now I understood the decision my mother had made. A farmer’s wife had no respite from work – up at dawn and last to bed. Tending animals, making meals, churning butter, doing laundry, cleaning house, raising children… the list was endless. The wives in Goshawk’s Hollow all looked old before their time, with chapped hands, weathered faces, and permanent frowns, whereas my mother remained beautiful: a star of the stage. She looked more like my older sister than my mother.
“Are we finished for today, or would you like for me to sing it again, Madame?” My voice was saccharine and contrasted mightily, I knew, with my flinty expression. She’d been a thorn in my backside for nigh on four years now, doing her best to turn what I loved most into a dreaded chore. She’d failed.
“By this time next week, you’ll be begging to come home.” Turning on her heel, she strode off the porch and back into the inn, black skirts swishing. With any luck, this time, this week, would be the last time I laid eyes on my vocal teacher. In a week’s time, I would be learning from the best opera singer living on the Isle of Light.
Unbidden, my mother’s image rose to the forefront of my mind, and along with it the memory, four years ago to the day, when she’d sealed my fate. “Sing,” she had demanded, and I’d chosen a tune popular at barn dances, the only song I knew. When she scowled, I thought my heart would break from disappointment.
“Any talentless wretch could manage that,” she said, blue irises identical to mine except that hers were cold as the winter sky. “Repeat after me.” She sang a few lines from an opera, her voice so lovely that it brought tears to my eyes. “Now you.”
I imitated her, hesitantly at first, but then with more confidence. She’d sung and I’d repeated, trilling like a songbird mimicking a flute.
She’d smiled. “Well done, Cécile. Well done.” Turning to my father who’d watched from the corner, she’d said, “I’ll take her when she’s seventeen.” When he’d started to argue, she raised a hand, silencing him. “She’s strong, clever, and, once she’s grown out of this awkward stage, she’ll be fair enough. And her voice is divine.” Her eyes had gleamed. “She’s wasted out here in the country where no one would know talent if it kicked them in the face. I’ll arrange for tutors to come out to Goshawk’s Hollow to teach her – I’ll not have her arriving with the manners of a milk cow.”
Turning to me, she’d unclasped a golden pendant from her neck and fastened it around mine. “Beauty can be created, knowledge learned, but talent can neither be purchased nor taught. And you’ve talent, my dearest girl. When you stand on stage and sing, the whole world will love you.”
I clutched that pendant in my fist, now, staring at the door Madame had closed behind her. The whole world would love me.
The sound of my name caught my attention. Scampering down the wooden steps, I dodged puddles as I made my way over to where my best friend, Sabine, was leaning against a fencepost, playing with a coiled lock of hair. She grinned and handed me a basket of eggs. “You finished it.”
“Hundredth time’s the charm.” Taking hold of her arm, I tugged her in the direction of the stables. “I need to hurry back to the farm. Gran needs these eggs for the cake she’s baking for my going away party tonight.”
Sabine’s face fell.
“I did invite you,” I reminded her. “You can come back with me, if you like. Spend the night. The coach will have to pass through town on the way to Trianon, so it would be easy enough to drop you back in the morning,” I said casually, as though I traveled by hired coach every day of my life.
“I know…” She looked down. “But my ma took the gig to the Renard farm. She said not to expect her till the morning.”
I made a face, not bothering to suggest she saddle her pony and ride with me. Sabine was terrified of horses. Bloody stones and sky, why hadn’t I thought ahead this morning and hitched Fleur to the buggy instead of riding to town? And where on God’s green earth was my brother? Frédéric was supposed to have arrived from Trianon hours ago. Sabine might have conceded to ride behind
him
, if only because she’d fancied him since time eternal.
“I can’t help but think this is the last time we’ll see each other,” Sabine said softly, interrupting my thoughts. “That once you’re in Trianon with your mother, performing and going to all those parties, you’ll forget about the Hollow. And me.”
“That’s utter foolishness,” I declared. “I’ll be back so often to visit, you’ll be right sick of me. You know Frédéric comes back whenever he has leave.”
“He hasn’t been back since the new year.”
It was true that since Fred’s most recent promotion to second-lieutenant, he’d found less opportunity to visit. “Then I’ll ride by myself.”
“Oh, Cécile.” Sabine shook her head. “You can’t be doing that anymore – it’s unladylike. People will talk.”
“But it’s in your best interest,” I reminded her. The stable boy was leading Fleur towards us, but I found myself not wanting to leave. Sabine and I had been best friends our whole lives, and the thought of not seeing her every day formed a cold pit in my stomach.
“I’ll ride home, give Gran the eggs, and then hitch up the buggy and come back for you,” I decided. “Go put on your blue dress. I’ll be back in no time at all.”
She bit the ends of her hair. “I don’t know…”
I caught her gaze for a long moment. “You’re going to come back with me in the buggy and attend my party,” I said firmly.
Sabine’s eyes went blank, and for a heartbeat, everything came into sharp focus for me. The sounds of the market. The solid earth beneath my feet. A breeze rushed past us, ruffling Sabine’s hair. She smiled. “Of course. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Nothing a bit of willpower couldn’t accomplish.
Swinging into the saddle, I twitched the reins to calm my frisking horse. “I won’t be more than an hour. Watch for me!” One hand clutching the basket of eggs, and the other the reins, I dug in my heels and galloped out of town.
 
Our farm was close enough to the Hollow that we were almost considered town folk, but far enough that the smell of pigs didn’t offend the noses of those less used to country life. I could have galloped the entire way there, but I let Fleur stop and catch her breath about halfway. Her hooves thudded softly against the damp earth as we walked down the road. The smell of pine was thick in the air and a cool breeze rushed down from the mountains, blowing my long red hair out behind me.
A flash of movement caught my eye, and I stopped, scanning the forest to either side of the road. Bears and mountain cats were common enough around here, but if the horse had scented a predator, she’d have been uncontrollable. The wind gusted through the trees and I thought I heard the crackle of breaking underbrush, though I couldn’t be sure. My pulse quickened, a prickle of anxiety running down my spine. Highwayman? Robbery wasn’t common this far north of the Ocean Road, but it was possible.
“Hello?” I called out, gathering up the reins. “Is someone there?”
No answer, but anyone intending to rob me was unlikely to reply. My trepidation grew. I’d ridden this road rain, snow, and shine, and never felt a moment’s fear before. Fleur pranced beneath me, sensing my anxiety.
The wind rose again, no longer gentle, but like angry fingers tugging at my hair. The sun ducked behind a cloud, turning the air chill. My eyes unconsciously turned to Forsaken Mountain, looming in the distance. I was halfway between home and town, but Jérôme Girard’s farm was nearby. I could ride there and ask his son Christophe to accompany me the rest of the way.
But what if he laughed at me for being such a ninny, scared of noises in the underbrush that were probably from a squirrel or a snake? Despite a lifetime proving to the contrary, everyone acted like I was already a city girl, and this would only prove their point. I circled and stared back the way I came. I could ride back and wait for my brother, but what if something had kept him in Trianon and he wasn’t even coming?
I’ll gallop home, I decided. Let whoever’s lurking in the woods try and catch me
.
Turning Fleur around, I abruptly hauled on the reins. The basket slipped from my hand and smashed against the ground, yellow yolks mixing with the mud.
A cloaked rider blocked the road.
My heart leapt. Fleur wheeled around, and I laid the ends of my reins to her haunches. “Hah!” I shouted as she surged forward.
“Cécile! Cécile, wait! It’s me!”
A familiar voice. Gentler this time, I reined in and looked over my shoulder. “Luc?”
“Yes, it’s me, Cécile.” He trotted over to me, pulling back his hood to reveal his face.
“What are you doing sneaking about like that?” I said. “You scared the wits out of me.”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t certain it was you at first. Sorry about the eggs.”
An apology that didn’t explain at all why he’d been lurking in the bushes in the first place.
“I haven’t seen you in quite some time. Where have you been?” I asked the question even though I knew the answer. His father was gamekeeper on an estate not far from our farm, but several months ago, Luc had taken off for Trianon. My brother and other townsfolk had caught wind that Luc had had a bit of luck betting on the horses and playing at cards, and was now living the high life spending his winnings.
“Here and there,” he said, riding around me in a circle. “The gossips say you’re moving to Trianon to live with your mother.”
“Her carriage is coming for me tomorrow.”
“You’ll be singing then. On stage?”
“Yes.”
He smiled. “You always did have the voice of an angel.”
BOOK: Stolen Songbird: Malediction Trilogy Book One (The Malediction Trilogy)
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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