Flash Fiction: The Harp’s Voice
I had to skip last week’s #FlashFictionFriday due to being too busy! But I’m back today with a new story set in the Kitty and Cadaver universe! Here you meet Perdita, who is mentioned in the last chapter of Kitty and Cadaver, and Perdita’s friend Tristen.
Tristen is in part inspired by my good friend Anniene Stockton, who (like Tristen) broke her leg badly while performing. Anniene and I talked about Tristen a good while ago, and finally I’ve had a chance to write her! One day, Tristen and Perdita will appear in a second Kitty novel!
The other prompts for this story came from Alexx on Fire (“a small round pebble”) and Bakersttardis . (the photo of the cottage). Thank you both, and please follow me on Twitter if you want to prompt next Thursday for the Friday story!
The Harp’s Voice
A clink against glass startled Tristen from her doze. She rubbed her eyes and blinked at the dying fire. The midnight chill was creeping in through the windowpane, under the front door, and would soon be coming down the chimney if she let that fire go out.
The sound that woke her forgotten, Tristen pushed aside the blanket across her knees and reached for one of her forearm crutches. With it, she heaved herself up and balanced on the leg not embraced by the laced leather calliper. The brace ended in a boot, also tightly laced.
Tristen was glad her grandmother slept. Grandma Hazel meant well, but she was annoyingly prone to acting like Tristen couldn’t do things for herself. Now, with a few well practiced manoeuvres, Tristen bent to the wood basket, selected some lighter faggots of wood and dropped them over the grate into the fire. She basked in the growing heat before adding a larger piece.
A repeat of the clink against glass drew her eyes towards the array of little square windows. With a hop, she turned towards it.
Another clink. Tristen took up her second crutch, went to the window and unlatched it just as another small round pebble was dropped against the pane.
A raven stood on the window sill. It shook its feathers huffily and cocked its head to give Tristen a beady eye.
‘Perdita! You’ve been ages.’ Tristen ushered the bird in with concern. ‘Fire’s up again. Let me get you some fruit.’
‘I’d prefer meat,’ said Perdita, a corvid croak to her perfect English. She flew close to the fireplace and spread her wings out to gather in its growing heat before settling to clean her feathers.
‘So would I, but fruit is what I have.’ Tristen cut a ripe persimmon into small pieces for her companion. ‘Did you find anything?’
‘Apart from the fact that it’s c-c-c-cold out there?’
‘I could tell you better if I had some meat.’
‘I’ll fry you up some bacon when we’re back home.’
Perdita hopped on the spot and flapped her wings in a decidedly approving manner. ‘Well, the auguries were right. I met a bat who is not a bat.’
‘Oh, terrific. I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough that it’s a vampire or a familiar?’
‘Alas, no. This bat speaks for Hoor.’
‘Speaks for or looks for?’
‘Did Asgard send it?’
‘I don’t think so. It brings a message but the little fellow seems to act alone.
‘You are being unnecessarily cryptic.’
The raven cocked her head again, and Tristen knew Perdita was laughing at her.
‘All right, so you’re a talking raven and guardian of Hoor’s prison, and you are in fact necessarily cryptic. Perhaps we can skip to the chase?’
The window rattled, loud and hard, with the unmistakable sound of wings beating against the glass.
Perdita flew immediately up to perch on the back of the chair in which Tristen had earlier fallen asleep. ‘Bugger. I told it to wait outside.’
Tristen limped to the chair to retrieve her other crutch and then moved, more nimbly than expected, to the other side of the room where she’d left her small lyre harp. Her much larger, much older harp was at home in Mile End, but Tristen took this sweet little instrument wherever she went, slung across her body in the leather sling she’d made for it. She put it on now as the rattling ceased.
‘Where did it go?’
Perdita flew to the closed window and placed her eye to it. ‘Gone. Not away, alas, it… oh dear.’ The raven twisted her neck to look… upwards. ‘Does your grandmother have a fire in her grate upstairs?’
Tristen gave time for one very expressive swear word and sat down so she had her hands free for the harp.
She swore again when her grandmother came down the stairs, a bat hanging from the front of her nightdress.
‘Tristen. This little beast came down my chimney. It’s demanding an audience.’
‘I knew you weren’t here for just a visit.’
‘Sorry, Grandma. The leaves warned that a portent would manifest at the cottage. I wanted to make sure you were all right.’
‘You wanted to see what was coming.’
‘I can do both.’
‘You can’t. You smashed your leg to bits and now you have to sit at home and leave the minstrel work to others.’
Grandma Hazel never could get her head around the fact that disability didn’t mean no ability. Tristen had worked hard to maintain dexterity of a different kind and to hone her music magic. It was one reason she’d moved out of her grandmother’s house to her own place ten years ago.
Her grandma’s disdainful gaze fell on the bat. The bat’s gaze was just as baleful in return.
‘I’ll banish you,’ Grandma Hazel told it. Tristen wished it were that easy.
‘Why have you come?’ Tristen asked the bat. ‘Did you come to free Hoor?’
Perdita flew across the room, cawing a warning to the bat, before alighting on the top of the harp.
The bat released the old lady’s nightwear and flapped to the carpet by Tristen’s feet.
Once upon a time, Tristen had been an acrobat. She had danced across narrow surfaces, balanced like this raven upon the crown of the harp. When she fought the creatures of darkness, she was so fast, so clever, that the darkness told stories about her. Her minstrel magic had been expressed through movement and through the closest a human being could come to flying.
And then she had fought where she couldn’t win. She’d fallen and shattered the magic right out of her bones, so she’d thought. Her grandparents had decided to leave the carnival life to care for her, in this peculiar little cottage, with its thatched roof and all its family secrets.
Tristen had thought she might wither and die of loneliness and sorrow, but Grandpa Silas had made a harp for her and during that long year of healing, she’d learned a lot of things. She’d learned to channel her magic through the strings of her instrument. She’d learned to walk, with her bad leg laced into the leather brace, and the two crutches on her forearms.
She’d learned new ways to fight.
Tristen ran her fingers across the strings. The larger harp would be better for this, but she could manage with this, she supposed. She began to pluck a melody, then the harmonies. She sang, crooning to the strings and the air and the messenger on the floor, building a bridge.
Listen, listen I will tell you
Speak, speak, I will hear you
These words of mine
Become thoughts of thine
And thy will speaks to me too.
The bat squeaked. Tristen played and the squeaks became words in the air, following the melody.
I am come from Asgard.
I fear Váli’s heart so hard.
He swears revenge still upon
The grieving, unforgiven one
My winter master, Hoor.
Tristen and Perdita knew the story. Loki had tricked Hoor into killing his brother Baldr. Vali was born and grew in a day, his sole purpose to avenge Baldr’s death. Deceived and grieving Hoor had been trapped hundreds of years ago in an earthen pot, preventing him from destroying the world with a never-ending winter. Perdita was the latest in a line of long-lived ravens who made sure that Hoor could not escape until called to Ragnarok. Tristen and the messenger sang bursts to each other, and it became clear that the bat came with a warning of his own.
Unseasonable, the seasons be
The frost and the sun confused be
The shape of winter
The blooms of spring
May, tangled, set the beloved killer free.
Global warming was more dangerous than Greta kept telling everyone. Tristen wasn’t sure what she and Perdita could do about that, except to be more vigilant and try to speak to the ancient one, the true guardian of the prisoner, who lived in the Thames. The last thing anyone needed was for Hoor to escape and for his inconsolable mourning to doom everyone to frostbitten death.
Tristen did her best to sing her thanks for the warning.
‘Open the door the Grandma,’ she said at last.
Grandma opened the front door and the bat launched itself into the winter night.
‘Bloody Asgard,’ grumbled the old lady. ‘I wish they wouldn’t bother you with it. You’re done with all that magic now.’
Tristen was the very opposite of “done with all that magic”. Her Mile End community depended on her. ‘Perdita’s the sky guardian,’ was all she said.
Grandma eyed the bird grimly. ‘Is Vali coming to claim Hoor, then?’
‘Not yet. But we have to keep him sleeping in the river, for everyone’s protection.’
‘I don’t know how a lame girl and a vain bird are going to achieve that.’
Tristen wasn’t sure either, but she had more faith than Grandma. Grandma had lost most of hers when Black Annis had murdered Grandpa.
‘We’ll manage,’ Tristen said. ‘And I’m not the only Minstrel on the planet. There’ll be help if I need it, I’m sure.’
Like the rumours that Rome’s Burning was changing their name and line-up, now that Alex and Kurt had died. She’d best make sure she had the bass player’s number on speed-dial, though.
Just in case.
The story of Hoor is told in a short story that appears in Scar Tissue and Other Stories.