There are few things editors like better than sharing a book we love . . . and this week I have the chance to share a novel that I absolutely adored. Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper blew me away.
Saying that is easy . . . putting my finger on why is less easy to do, because – as with any pleasure – the more you analyse it the harder it is to find the specific part you loved. It’s not the character or the world or the magic or the writing . . . it’s all of those things, together, and the way that they mesh together that is so unique. And that’s how it is here. There is a flow to the prose, and there is magic in the way the elements are woven together to give seamless plot progression and character development; to give texture and colour to the world while providing a dramatic story. The whole, to me, is a wonderful thing.
Of course, I still have favourite moments – moments which kept me reading long into the night when the novel was first submitted to Gollancz in 2009, and which, rereading since, have made my copy of Songs of the Earth a somewhat battered-looking thing. But my favourite thing about this book remains the feeling that, here, I have a novel that showcases exactly what I’m looking for in a fantasy novel, and gives me everything I love in the genre. And that is an absolutely wonderful thing.
So here we go . . . the first five chapters of Songs of the Earth. There’s character. Adventure. Magic. People forced, by extraordinary circumstances, to become greater, more powerful or wiser than they believed they were. To draw on resources that they did not believe they had. To survive their struggles, their triumphs and their losses.
Elspeth Cooper is rightly one of the most successful debut novelists we’ve ever published – but don’t just take my word for it. Read it for yourself.
Chapter One: Condemned
The magic was breaking free again.
Its music sang along Gair’s nerves as if they were harp-strings, a promise of power thrumming through his fingers. All he had to do was embrace it, if he dared. He pressed his face into his knees and prayed. ‘Hail, Mother, full of grace, light and life of all the world. Blessed are the meek, for they shall find strength in you. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find justice in you. Blessed are the lost, for they shall find salvation in you. Amen.’
Line by line, verse by verse, the devotion tumbled from his cracked lips. His fingers twitched for the familiar shapes of rosary beads to keep the count, but he had lost his place long ago. When the words faltered, he hugged his knees tighter to his chest and began again.
‘Now I am lost in a place of darkness O Mother I am fallen from thy path guide me once more . . .’
Music still whispered seductively in his ears. Nothing drowned it out, not prayers, not pleas, not even the few hymns he could still remember. It was everywhere: in the rusted iron walls of his cell, in the rank sweat on his skin, in the colours he saw in the dark. With every breath he took, it grew a little louder.
Silvery chimes rang in the air. Gair opened his eyes and they were seared by a light so bright, so white, he had to shield his face with his hands. Through his fingers he saw two figures, clothed in brilliance. Angels. Holy Mother, angels sent to carry him home.
‘. . . bless me now and take me to your side let me be forgiven of all my sins . . .’
On his knees, Gair waited for the blessing. A backhanded blow
across his face sent him sprawling.
‘Save your chants, hidderling!’
Another blow flung him hard against the iron-plate wall. Pain exploded in his temple and the music shivered into silence.
‘Gently, now. He has no power to harm you here.’
No. He had no power. The magic was too wild, too unpredict- able to belong to anyone for long. He didn’t need iron walls to be helpless. Slumped on the floor, Gair clutched his pounding head. Blessed are the lost.
Silver-spurred boots crossed his line of sight, rowels chiming. Not bells. No robes of light, just the white wool surcoats of the Lord Provost’s marshals. Iron manacles snicked round Gair’s wrists and the marshals hauled him up by the chains.
He fell back to his knees as the cell wheeled crazily around him.
Cursing, a marshal drove his boot into Gair’s rump.
The other marshal clicked his tongue. ‘It’s a sin to take Her name in vain, you know that.’
‘Heh. You swore yourself to the wrong House, my friend. You preach like a lector.’ Another kick. ‘Up, witch! Walk to your judgement, or we’ll drag you!’
Gair lurched to his feet. Out in the stone-flagged corridor, sunlight lancing through high windows blinded him again. The marshals took position either side of him with their hands under his arms, half steering him, half supporting him when he stum- bled. Scabbards slapped and spurs rang as more marshals fell in step behind.
Endless blurry corridors. Stairs that tripped him and tore at his bare toes. No time to rest or catch his breath; he had to walk or fall, and he had fallen so far already. Out of the Goddess’ grace, out of Her hearing, no matter how many fragments of prayers still skittered through the void the magic had left inside him.
‘. . . be a light and comfort to me now and in the hour of my death . . .’
A gauntleted hand cuffed the side of Gair’s head and a yank on his chains pulled him on. Wider hallways now, panelled in wood. Marble tiles underfoot instead of bare dressed stone, and hangings on the walls. One final turn and the marshals halted. Dark doors towered ahead, flanked by smudgy figures carrying long banners. A breath of air stirred the fabric, and Holy Oaks flamed as thread of gold embroidery caught the sun.
Recognition sank like a stone into Gair’s gut. Those doors led to the Rede Hall, where the Knights held their councils and ceremonies . . . where the Order gave its judgements. His knees buckled, and chains clattered as he put out his hands to stop himself sprawling on the polished floor. Inside him, a whisper of music stirred and was still.Judgement. Too late to hope he might be spared; too late to hope for anything but forgiveness.
Oh Goddess, look kindly on me now.
Ahead, the massive doors swung noiselessly inwards.
From the curtained alcove above the doors Alderan could see the length of the Rede Hall, from surcoated sentries to the many- leaved bronze Oak above the Preceptor’s chair, glowing in the sun that was streaming through the tall windows. His perch was high enough above everyone’s eyeline to be safe, provided he did nothing to attract attention to himself, but it was still a risk being there.
The benches either side of the hall were crowded with hier- archs, magnificent in their formal scarlet – a full house, as close as he could count, full of rosy cheeks and well-padded arses, gossip- ing and nodding and fluffing their feathers.
Alderan’s lip curled. These are the inheritors of Endirion? The First Knight must be weeping in his grave.
From a side door came a pair of clerks, sober as ravens in their black robes. They took their seats at desks facing each other across the hall before the Preceptor’s chair on its dais, the prosecutor sorting his papers, the scribe setting out pens and ink to record the day’s proceedings for the archives. A moment later, the Preceptor himself entered the hall.
Ansel’s angular frame was as upright as ever, but his thick hair matched his white robes, and the hand that held his staff of office was knobbed and twisted by arthritis.
So at last he’s met a foe he cannot vanquish. The hero of Samarak, finally brought low by time.
At Ansel’s side, the Chaplain was unchanged, if a little greyer than when Alderan had last seen him. Leonine head bent to whisper a word for Ansel’s ear alone, Danilar frowned at the response, then folded his massive hands in his sleeves and walked to his seat on the front row of benches. Ansel squared his shoul- ders, then climbed the steps onto the dais and turned to face the hall. The hierarchs fell silent.
‘I call this Rede to order,’ he announced. ‘Let us begin.’
A twitch of Ansel’s fingers signalled the sentries to open the doors. Every hierarch leaned forward, the better to watch the entrance of the accused. In his lap, Alderan’s fists clenched. These were the Order’s most senior officers, subservient only to the Preceptor, himself second only to the Lector of Dremen.
And yet look at them! Gawking like yokels at the fair, waiting for the showman to bring out his painted lady or a two-headed calf. I hope the Goddess is watching what Her anointed few are about to do in Her name.
Through the doors came a pair of marshals, their prisoner stumbling between them. Long lank hair and many days’ growth of beard hid the captive’s face, but nothing hid what had been done to him. His naked body was patterned with bruises. Scabs from the lash crusted his back, and one foot left bloody smears on the black and white floor with each step. When the marshals chained him to the mahogany rail of the witness stand he crashed to his knees, too weak to stand.
As one, the Curia caught their breath. Some of the hierarchs made a show of holding handkerchiefs to their faces as they stared.
Was this how far the Suvaeon had fallen from the tenets of Diamondhelm? Returning to the question and the tawse, that had been outlawed for centuries? Anger uncoiled in Alderan’s belly like a serpent rearing to strike. Was this what they called justice?
Pain stabbed Gair’s foot as he fell. Buzzing darkness swarmed into his vision from all sides and the Rede Hall became a vortex of scarlet and sunlight, sucking him down to the chequered floor.
His stomach clenched to spew. He swallowed the nausea down hard and shut his eyes until the dizziness passed. The hierarchs were staring at him. Their revulsion, their awful fascination, prickled over the back of his neck. Their silence rang as loud as a shout.
He had no answer for them. How could he deny the truth? His skin crawled with guilt.
Stand up, novice. Whatever comes, face it on your feet.
Selenas, the Master of Swords, hard brown hand extended to help a boy up from the dirt of a sun-soaked practice yard, what felt like a century ago. Helping him up to fight again.
Gair opened his eyes. Black and white tiles under him. Smells of floor polish and incense and – merciful Mother! – his own unwashed body. On the periphery of his vision, dark wood, red robes. Let the Curia stare. They would not see him mewling on the floor like a pup.
Slowly, chains heavy on his wrists, he took hold of the mahogany rail and pulled himself to his feet.
Alderan let out a breath he had not even realised he held. They had not broken him. The boy was unsteady, but he was standing, head up to meet the Preceptor’s gaze full on. Exultation punched up from Alderan’s gut. There was hope yet.
The Preceptor raised his steel-shod staff and struck the dais three times, measured as a heartbeat. Around the hall, the hierarchs stilled. Motes flared in the sunlight from the long windows. The sun had moved westwards; now the dais lay in shadow and the witness stand stood full in the glare.
‘Who stands before the Rede?’ Ansel’s voice was worn thin by the years, but still it had a snap to it.
‘One who stands accused,’ responded the prosecutor, warrant in his hands. He did not look at the prisoner.
‘Of what is he accused?’
‘My lord, he is charged with foully desecrating the house of the Goddess, sinning against Her commandments and violating the sternest precepts of our faith.’
‘By what means?’
A hiss of indrawn breath rippled through the crowded benches. Just the word was enough to have them reaching for their rosaries.
Alderan’s fists clenched again; he made himself fold his hands in his lap. He was not there to tear the Rede Hall apart brick by brick. Not today.
‘Why does he stand here?’
‘To receive the judgement of the Rede.’
Silence, apart from the scritch of the scribe’s quill, then even that ceased. Despite the weight of the stares on him the lad held his head up, kept his eyes fixed on the place in the shadows where Ansel’s face should be. He did not squint, though his eyes must surely be watering. The sun cut through his overgrown beard, revealing the hard angles of the face beneath. Typical Leahn, from the ruler-level brows and long straight nose to the set of his jaw. Not even a hint that he was perturbed to stand in front of the Rede in naught but his own sweat. Or if he was, he would damned well not let it show.
Oh, he’s going to be a handful.
In the hall below, the silence grew heavier. The prosecutor shuffled his paperwork irritably, stealing a glance at the Preceptor. Even the dust in the air seemed to pause, suspended like flies in amber. On the benches, hierarchs leaned forward.
Ansel stepped into the light. His pale hair flared halo-like around his head as he took the charge sheet from the prosecutor. The Curia stood up with a creak of benches and a rustle of robes.
‘You have been charged with numerous acts of witchcraft, the details of which have been discussed at length by this assembly,’ Ansel said, glancing at the parchment in his hand. ‘The Rede has heard the evidence presented to it, including the sworn statement lodged by Elder Goran. We have also heard the testimony of other witnesses, given under oath in this chamber, and the reports concerning your confession.’
He looked straight at Gair. To his credit, the lad did not flinch.
‘The Rede has reached a verdict. Are you prepared to hear our judgement, my son?’
‘I am, my lord.’
Alderan shook his head. Goddess love the boy, he stares damnation in the eye!
The Preceptor paused, the attention of the room locked upon him.
‘Hear now the judgement of the Rede.’ Ansel’s words were flat and cold as stone. ‘We find the accused guilty of all charges. The sentence is death by burning.’
Gair gripped the railing tight and locked his knees. He would not go down again. He would not! But still the verdict roared in his ears.
Be a light and comfort to me now and in the hour of my death oh Mother if You can still hear me I don’t want to die.
Ansel crumpled the parchment between his hands. The prosecutor blinked; opposite him, Brother Chronicler goggled up at the Preceptor, wet lips slack as the ball of paper dropped onto his desk and pattered across it to the floor.
‘An appeal for clemency has been entered into the record, citing your previous good character and conduct. The Rede must take this into account, therefore the sentence will be commuted to branding, excommunication from the Eadorian faith and banish- ment from this parish on pain of death. You have until dusk today to comply. May the Goddess have mercy on your soul.’
Ansel’s staff struck the dais three times.
Gair stared. Reprieve? How? Surely he had misheard, his ears still filled with the sizzle of flames.
‘Preposterous!’ Elder Goran strode down the tiers from the upper benches on the left side of the hall. Angry purple suffused his meaty face. ‘This is outrageous, Ansel! I demand to know who entered this plea!’
‘I cannot tell you, Goran, you know that. It was entered as a sealed plea and as such is anonymous. Consistorial law is quite clear on the point.’
‘The punishment for witchcraft is death,’ Goran insisted. ‘There can be no commuting it, no appeal. It is stated in the Book of Eador: ‘‘Suffer ye not the life of a witch and shun ye all works of evil lest they imperil thy soul.’’ This is not justice. This is an insult to the Goddess Herself!’
‘Peace, Goran.’ Ansel lifted his hand as angry mutters of support rose from the benches. ‘All of you. We have argued this out before. It serves no purpose to do so again. This Rede is concluded.’
‘I must protest, Preceptor! This creature has turned his face from the one true Goddess. He has besmirched the sanctity of the Suvaeon Order, instigated who knows what corruption and depravity amongst us. He has performed acts of witchcraft here, on holy ground. He must be punished!’
The sun was too hot on Gair’s face. His head spun and he clung to the wooden railing for support.
Across the chamber, Danilar leaned forward from his seat.
‘Don’t you think the boy is being punished enough, Goran?’ the Chaplain asked mildly. ‘He will never be welcome in a place of worship again once he wears a witchmark. Never be able to wed, never have his children blessed and taken into the faith. It will go with him to his grave, along with the hatred and suspicion of his neighbours. Is that not enough?’
‘The punishment for witchcraft is death.’ Goran smacked one plump fist into his other hand to mark out the words. ‘We cannot flinch from it because the accused comes from our own ranks. Whosoever commits Corlainn’s sin shares Corlainn’s punishment. He must be burned.’
Angry voices shouted support for Goran. Hands waved and faces twisted into ugliness. Hate-filled words stabbed at Gair’s ears, but he kept his eyes fixed on the Preceptor. His intervention was all that kept him from the fire.
Please don’t let me die.
Ansel raised his hand for silence and was ignored. Demands tossed down from the benches to either side of the hall thickened the air. Frowning, he drove the heel of his staff onto the dais so hard it rang like the Sacristy bell.
‘I have passed sentence!’ he barked. ‘It is the task of the Rede to determine a verdict. It is mine to set the sentence and I have set it. Now that is enough!’
The Curia subsided into vengeful muttering and finally a silence of vast disapproval. Goran remained in front of the lowest tier, glaring.
‘Goddess in glory.’ Ansel planted his staff between his feet.
‘You are disciples of Endirion, my brothers, not a pack of unruly schoolboys. Now go with the Goddess. The Rede is over.’
A few stubborn murmurs of protest caused the Preceptor to lean forward, into the sunlight. His lips thinned and his blue eyes flashed. ‘No more, I tell you!’
‘This is not the end, Ansel.’ Goran levelled a finger at Gair.
‘You will hear of this again.’ He stalked away towards the doors, his supporters clustered around him. Rustling and shuffling, the remainder of the hierarchs descended from their benches and followed.
Gair sagged against the railing. It was over, and he still had his life. Somehow. Before he had had more than a moment to savour it, the marshals had unchained him and were marching him across the marble-tiled floor. He looked back over his shoulder, but Ansel had already turned away.
Out in the vestibule, his escort prodded him through a side door and down a sloping windowless corridor. It opened onto a circu- lar, chimney-like courtyard floored with cracked and blackened stones around the deep socket for the stake: Traitor’s Court, where Corlainn the heretic had paid for his sins in the Founding Wars, and where the citizens of Dremen would have come tomorrow to see another witch burn. The tiers of galleries stood empty, looking down on nothing more than a scarred wooden block with leather straps nailed to it. A brazier stood next to it, tended by a squat, shirtless man in a farrier’s apron. Above the brazier the air danced with heat. The iron pushed deep into the coals was cherry-red halfway to the handle. Despair yawned in Gair’s belly as he was shoved out into the sun.
A few feet from the farrier stood a slim, upright figure in marshal’s mail and surcoat. Gold thread outlined the gauntlet badge on his breast and he wore the golden cords of Provost on his upper arm.
The marshals stamped to attention. Bredon acknowledged their salutes with a nod. Dark, hooded eyes looked Gair over without emotion.
‘Please, my lord . . .’ Don’t do this.
The lines that ran from hooked nose to mouth deepened a fraction. ‘Is the prisoner fit to stand sentence?’ Bredon asked.
The farrier grasped Gair’s head between callused hands to thumb back his eyelids. He jerked his head away as the sunlight stung his eyes. Then the farrier pinched up the skin on his upper arm, hard enough to hurt.
‘Seen better,’ the man grunted. ‘But he’s got the will.’
Gair’s escort dragged him towards the block. A kick in the back of his knees forced him to kneel whilst the manacle on his left wrist was unlocked. Desperately he lashed out with the dangling chain and missed. The butt of a marshal’s mace connected with the side of his head.
‘Be still, hidderling,’ the marshal snarled. ‘Face your punishment like a man, if not a Knight!’
The noon sun was too bright, its shadows black and sharp as daggers, pounding into Gair’s skull. He couldn’t focus, had no strength to resist as his left arm was forced onto the block, the other twisted up tight between his shoulder-blades by the chain. His fingers were shoved under a broad iron staple and leather straps hauled tight around his elbow and wrist. Blood dripped from his face, pocking the dusty stones like summer rain.
At the brazier, the farrier wrapped a scrap of leather around the iron’s handle and lifted it from the coals. The straw-coloured heel of the branding-iron smoked, the air around it roiling.
Oh Goddess no. Gair struggled to tug his hand free, but the straps held him fast.
‘No,’ he managed. His breath whistled through clenched teeth.
‘Goddess, please! No!’
The throbbing heat of the iron struck like a blow as it was aligned carefully, almost delicately, above the centre of his palm. Sweat burst from his skin. The farrier’s eyes slid briefly in Bredon’s direction, seeking approval. Then the brand pressed down.