Alina: A Song for the Telling
ALINA: A SONG FOR THE TELLING is the coming-of-age story of a young woman from Provence in the 12th century who travels to Jerusalem, where she is embroiled in political intrigue, theft, and murder, and finds her voice.
“You should be grateful, my girl. You have no dowry, and I am doing everything I can to get you settled. You are hardly any man’s dream.” Alina’s brother Milos pulled his face into a perfect copy of Aunt Marci’s sour expression, primly pursing his mouth. He got her querulous tone just right. Maybe Alina’s aunt was right. She could not possibly hope to become a musician, a trobairitz—impoverished as she was and without the status of a good marriage. But Alina refuses to accept the life her aunt wants to impose on her. At the first opportunity she and her brother embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray for their father’s soul and to escape from their aunt and uncle’s strictures. Their journey east takes them through the Byzantine Empire all the way to Jerusalem, where Alina is embroiled in political intrigue, theft, and murder. Forced by a manipulative, powerful lord at court into acting as an informer, Alina tries to protect her wayward brother, while coming to terms with her attraction to a French knight.
Release date: August 27, 2020
Publisher: BHC Press
Print pages: 232
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Alina: A Song for the Telling
Malve von Hassell
CHAPTER 1—A FUNERAL
The path from the church to the cemetery had turned into a sea of slush, and Father Otho’s feet and the hem of his hooded cloak were spattered and heavy with mud. With grim satisfaction, I kept my eyes on the blue toes and cracked nails poking out of his worn sandals.
Just two days ago he was in the great hall, drinking the last of my father’s wine.
“This will do for the priest,” Uncle Garsanc declared with a sniff as he brought the bottle up from the cellar.
My father was proud of that wine, but now it was deemed merely good enough for an inconsequential guest. My uncle already behaved as if he owned the manor.
Uncle Garsanc arrived within days after the lake ice melted enough for the reeds to loosen their grip on my father’s sodden limbs. When my uncle rode into the courtyard, followed by his wife and several servants, my brother and I went out to welcome him.
Milos was silent, his arms folded over his chest, so I had to say something—even though, as a daughter, it was not my place. “Thank you, Uncle, for coming.” I sank into a curtsey.
“It is high time for someone to take this place in hand.” He shook his head as he handed his reins to a flustered stable hand and frowned at the boy’s dirty tunic and bare feet.
Mutely we followed our uncle into the great hall. Aunt Marci, my uncle’s wife, took a kerchief out of her satchel and spread it on a chair before sitting down. To welcome them, I had placed a tray on the table with beakers and a jug of ale, but was unable to do anything about the state of neglect and confusion.
Aunt Marci glanced at the beakers and beckoned her servant. “Take these to the scullery and scrub them clean before you bring them back.”
I flushed. I had cleaned the beakers myself earlier, but I stayed silent. It was as if I could hear my mother’s voice, admonishing me for my quick tongue. “You are a lady. Learn to act like one.” Sometimes she would add with a smile, “Remember, Alina, as a woman you can accomplish more if your manners are always impeccable.” I bit my lip. Be grateful, I kept repeating to myself. We need their help.
The priest arrived at the manor that same afternoon.
“Thank you, Alina,” my uncle said when I carried in a tray with a flagon, beakers, and a platter of biscuits. In front of company, his tone of voice was kind and courteous. “Would you pour Father Otho some wine?”
The priest took the beaker from me and sipped. He pointed at the platter on the sideboard as if I were a servant. I resisted the urge to toss it in his lap and silently offered it to him. He took a biscuit and stuffed it into his mouth, washing it down with another swallow of wine.
My uncle watched him impassively. “As I explained earlier, we hope to lay my brother to rest on Saturday.”
With an expression of sympathy pasted onto his jowly face, Father Otho avoided my uncle’s eyes as he spoke. “Good sir, I am sure you will understand that I hesitate to offer your departed brother a place in our cemetery. There is serious doubt about the manner of his death.” He put down the beaker. “But I am grieved for your loss and will be sure to include your brother in my prayers.”
I stared at him in dismay. People in the village whispered, but none could say definitively that my father had killed himself. Of course, I knew—that is, I believed—he simply gave up and escaped into the void.
But I wanted him to be able to rest there, under the yew trees in the cemetery, with my mother and my sister, not outside the wall in the little wood.
Ivy had just begun to crawl over the edges of their mound, but there was nothing to mark their passing other than the entry in the family bible in my father’s shaky hand—Beatriou de Florac, beloved wife of Guy de Florac, 1139-1172, and Maria de Florac, beloved daughter, 1156-1172.
Uncle Garsanc sat quietly, glancing at the priest’s grimy cassock with remnants of scrambled egg and breadcrumbs stuck in its folds, before raising his eyes to Father Otho’s face. “Thank you. We are all grieved. Indeed, these are troubling times.” He stood up and gestured politely toward the door.
Father Otho first looked around to see whether my aunt had come back into the hall, then quickly stuffed several biscuits into his sleeve as he passed by the board.
“On another matter…” My uncle lowered his voice as he followed the priest outside, so I could barely make out what he said. “I visited the church earlier today. The roof is showing signs of age.” The door closed on Father Otho, who was clutching his cassock and turning his face toward my uncle.
When Uncle Garsanc came back inside, he smirked at Aunt Marci, who had returned to the hall and now sat on my mother’s favorite chair. “The funeral will be the day after tomorrow,” my uncle announced. “A new roof seems a small price to pay to protect the family’s name.”
Now we stood at the open grave, the muddy bottom around the pine coffin already a dark pool from the persistent sleet and rain. Water dripped off the eaves of the church onto icy patches below. I shivered, and my head ached as I listened to the disjointed pitter-patter, wishing I could force it into a comforting rhythm. None of the servants attended the small service. In fact, only a couple of old women from the village were there, and they came to every single funeral. Studying their dark gowns and shawls, I remembered my brother’s tutor telling us about the chorus in a Greek play, with their gloomy commentary on the tragedy of a son murdering his father or a girl dying alone in a tomb.
I caught myself grinning—my parents would have appreciated the irony. At that thought, I was flooded with grief. I would never again see my mother’s gentle smile or the detached amusement on my father’s face, smiling at me as if sharing a secret.
Uncle Garsanc and sour-faced Aunt Marci presided over the grave, glancing about with identical proprietary expressions. With a pang, I realized that I could hardly argue the point. They now controlled everything that had belonged to my father, and for the time being my brother Milos and I were powerless to do anything about it.
Shivering in my threadbare gown, I thought about the past year. Just nine months ago, we were all together. Sitting in the great hall, we made music while my mother listened, her head bent over her work. Occasionally she looked up and smiled at my father. His dark eyes always responded while he continued playing melodies on his lute, nodding to Milos and me to make sure we didn’t miss a beat. That was the last time I saw my father content and at ease.
A few days later my mother and my sister Maria fell ill. A monk came over from the nearby monastery and spent a short time in my mother’s chamber before he came out again. “It is the sweating sickness. I have heard that others have also succumbed to it.” He did not look at me, busying himself with closing the straps on his scrip, the leather pouch monks used.
“But you can help her, can’t you?” My hands shook, and water from the pitcher in my hands slopped onto the flagstones.
“I did what I could.” The monk shrugged. “God sends illnesses to punish us.”
“And my sister?”
“I am sorry.” The monk lifted his hands and let them drop.
“Please stay,” I begged, grabbing his cassock. “Please help them.”
He pulled the coarse brown cloth out of my grasp, sketched the sign of the cross, and walked away quickly, his sandals flapping and his scrip bouncing on his back.
The monk had, indeed, spread sweet-smelling herbs all around the room where we were caring for Maria and my mother, but I couldn’t imagine what good it would do.
I could not give up. There had to be something else. I shouted for the servant to bring more water and started bathing their faces again. I tried to get them to drink something, but it was no good. My mother turned her head away, and when I spooned ale into Maria’s mouth, the pale liquid dribbled down her chin and onto the pallet.
At least they had both stopped flinging off their blankets. I took a comb and began to untangle my sister’s long hair, brushing it until it lay straight around her shoulders. For a moment she clutched my hand, and I hoped she might speak to me, but she only sighed.
Maria died that night.
I gazed at her face, stunned and bewildered. It was already that of a stranger, with her lips cracked and the skin slack, devoid of all life. My mother lay unmoving under her blanket, although I could still hear her breathing.
I had to get out of the room or I would suffocate, so I walked outside to find the apple trees in the orchard covered with exuberant, sweet-scented clouds of white blossoms.
I could hardly bear to look at them. It was as if their beauty was mocking me. If God sent illnesses to punish people like my mother and my sister, who never hurt anyone in their entire lives, I didn’t want to have anything else to do with Him.
My mother died while I was outside.
I returned to the room to find my father kneeling next to her pallet, his head on the blanket and his arms flung out as if trying to hold onto her. I watched helplessly from the doorway, heartsick over his racking sobs.
Finally my brother gently pulled him up and led him away. For days my father sat mute in his dark study, aimlessly plucking the lute strings. On the day of the funeral, he walked to the cemetery, like an obedient child, holding on to Milos’s arm. With a blank expression on his face, he watched as we put my mother and Maria to rest. Then he returned to his study and shut the door in our faces. From that day on, my father ignored everything relating to the land or the manor. Instead he spent all his time in his study where, in better days, he used to take care of business and meet with his tenants. Now he did nothing but stare into the fire.
With no one to oversee them, the servants neglected their work, the cook developed a mysterious illness and frequently was nowhere to be found, and tenants were late with their rents.
My father said nothing when Milos disappeared for days on end. He said nothing when I tried to prepare our meals, burning things half of the time, wishing I had paid more attention to my mother’s housekeeping advice and examples.
Peire, our old steward, well-meaning and loyal to a fault, tried to jar my father into action. I happened to be in the hall when he knocked on my father’s door. There was no response. The steward hesitated, then pushed it open and stuck his head inside.
Peering over his shoulder, I could see my father at his desk. His bloodshot eyes vacant, he gazed at the steward without saying a word. His face was drawn and pale, his hair disheveled.
“My lord, you need to know something—so you can take steps to protect Master Milos and Mistress Alina.” Peire looked uncomfortable but determined. “There are rumors of witchcraft in the village. They are saying that my lady and Mistress Maria must have done something wicked for God to punish them so.”
My father said nothing. After a moment, he shook his head, walked over to the door, and closed it, shutting us out. Peire glanced at me, shrugging helplessly.
My father’s silence wound itself around my head, tightening and tightening until I felt it would explode.
The night before he disappeared, I yelled at him. He never moved, never looked at me, his face turned toward the fireplace. Apparently he hadn’t bothered to put on more wood, because the fire was out.
Of course I wasn’t pleasing to look at—an awkward, bony girl, scruffy and grimy, with dark, curly, unkempt hair, and ill-fitting clothes in need of mending.
In truth, I had never cared about my looks, and my mother finally gave up trying to get me to be more concerned with my appearance. I could not compete with the memory of my lovely mother and sister, or even with the lanky charm and grace of my brother.
But it hadn’t mattered to me until that moment. My father had never before made me feel invisible.
Enraged beyond words, I picked up a pewter pitcher and threw it at the fireplace. It clattered against the stones, rolled onto the floorboards, and lay still. I got an odd satisfaction when I saw I’d managed to dent it.
My father turned toward me as if waking up from a dream. For the first time in months he looked me full in the face. His scraggly beard emphasized the hollows under his eyes, and his pasty skin had begun to sag. With a sad smile, he said, “You are a good girl, Alina. Now go, my dear, and leave me be.”
I stared at him, overwhelmed by the raw desolation in his voice, and I backed slowly out of the room. He had already forgotten me. Staring at the ashes in the fireplace, he continued to play his lute, the random notes organizing themselves into a familiar melody. When he began to sing, his voice scratchy from lack of use, I realized he had changed the words.
My soul wants to fly out to sea.
My soul wants to fly over the mountains
To find my love who has gone from me.
My soul is lost in the darkness
And has forgotten how to be.
My songs are gone like wisps of clouds.
I pluck the strings, but no one can hear me.
So I wrap myself in my lover’s shrouds.
May they carry me home to the sea.
I fled up the stairs and huddled on my pallet, trying to block out the anguish in the words and the sad, dead sound of my father’s voice. Frightened and ashamed for having screamed at him, I could not sleep for a long time.
That same night he disappeared.
“Mistress Alina, I don’t know where your father is. He didn’t sleep in his bed the night.” The young servant girl, one of the few who continued to do her work diligently, watched me with a frown.
The servants, Milos, and I searched everywhere. We looked in all the rooms and outbuildings. No horses were missing from the stable.
After a while I couldn’t bear it. My father was gone. Forever. I was sure of it. I went to the hall where I left him the night before. His lute lay on his desk, wrapped in an old shawl my mother had often worn. I picked it up and breathed in my mother’s scent.
This was my fault. I kept hearing myself shouting at him. I had abandoned him. I should have forced that monk to stay and give my sister and my mother some medicine. Instead I walked away and let my mother die alone, just as last night I walked away from my father’s misery.
I went back outside. In the courtyard, Milos wandered around aimlessly. “Alina, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
At that moment, the steward came over to us, his back bent forward as if trying to shoulder a burden. His face was pale, and he seemed to have aged overnight.
“Master Milos, Mistress Alina, we found tracks in the snow leading to the lake. We are afraid there has been an accident.”
I followed Peire and Milos out of the courtyard, numb.
“Shouldn’t we call for help?” Milos said urgently as he trotted alongside the steward. “We could use this.” He held up a coil of rope he had grabbed from the stable.
The steward was silent.
Squinting against the glare from the thin layer of fresh snow glittering on the ice, I tried to follow the uneven tracks down the hill to the edge of the ice. I rubbed my hand over my eyes. For a moment I imagined the tracks were made by a child skipping and shouting and laughing for joy as it scampered through the snow.
But these footprints had not been left by a child.
They were made by a grown man stumbling around in the dark. I stared across the ice at the spot where it had broken up and water seeped to the surface. In the pale winter sunlight, the water looked oily, black, and still.
I pictured my father rushing blindly out onto the surface—running away from his grief. Deafened by the roar of his thoughts, he would not have heard the ice cracking or paid attention to the dark patches where thaw had set in.
I wondered whether, for a moment before sinking, he relished the sharp pain as he cut his hands on the ice—a moment of clarity. Perhaps he felt nothing but relief, finally joining his beloved wife in death.
A grip on my arm dragged me back to the present.
Startled out of my dark reverie, I glanced at my brother.
“You looked like you were about to fall in,” Milos whispered, nodding toward the open grave.
“Thank you,” I murmured, taking his hand.
His dark eyes met mine. His face was leached of all color, and he looked confused, as if unsure about what he was supposed to do. He gripped my hand so hard it hurt, and leaned toward me, abandoning his customary pose of being superior because he was fifteen, just a year older than I was, and the only son. Then he straightened up, and both of us returned our attention to the priest.
Father Otho had reached the end of the ceremony, mumbling the final petition so quickly that I could barely make it out. He sprinkled the coffin with holy water and perfunctorily waved incense over it, his cloak fluttering in the wind. “Rest in peace,” I whispered, praying that it might be so.
Uncle Garsanc murmured his thanks to the priest, and we turned to walk back to the manor while the gravediggers picked up their shovels. The sleet had turned to snow, but it did not muffle the thump and clatter of the dirt hitting the top of my father’s coffin as we trudged along.
“What’s going to happen now?” Milos whispered. His shoulders were hunched, as if to keep warm, and his tunic was getting too short for his lanky frame. He was almost as tall as our father had been.
“I have no idea,” I said weakly, wishing I could reassure him. Helplessly, I reached out to grab his hand. It was cold and clammy. “Something tells me we will find out soon enough. But at least we’re together.”
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