It’s only a week before BLACKFOOT’s release date of April 17th! Hooray!
For those of you who don’t know/didn’t realise: BLACKFOOT is the second book in the Two Monarchies Sequence and continues almost straight after the events of SPINDLE, though with a few different characters. Or, at least, some of ’em are still characters you know, just mixed up a bit. Those of you who have read MASQUE as well as SPINDLE will also meet some young characters who seem a little bit familiar…
And since I can, I’m posting the first chapter of BLACKFOOT for you guys, by way of whetting your appetite (and annoying the heck out of you when you realise that you can’t read the rest until next week, muahahaha).
Annabel was certain she remembered being born. Peter said that was rubbish, but Peter was always inclined to think that no one was quite as special or clever as he was. Annabel remembered the worried faces bent over her in her mother’s arms, and the long, clever, brown face that came later when all the others had gone. The clever brown one tied a sparkling rattle to a thread around her wrist and went away, and after that the rest of the faces looked less worried. They wouldn’t let her take the rattle off, even when she cried for hours on end. By the time she was two, Annabel was used to the tug of thread about her wrist and the tinkling of the rattle when she moved. The only time it was silent was when she held it under the water in the bath.
When she was old enough to know the faces around her as Father, Mother, and Cookie, Annabel was allowed out into the garden to walk, her tiny silver rattle tinkling at her wrist. It was understood that this was a Great Privilege, and that Annabel was Not To Wander Off.
Annabel didn’t mean to wander off. The thread around her wrist had seen one too many baths and was brittle and tenuous. Cookie had looked at it that morning and declared that it would have to be changed that afternoon, which made Annabel sigh. It was always such a business, changing the thread. Father had to be there to carefully snip the it with silver scissors, and Mother had to be there to thread the new one through the eyelet at the end of the rattle. Cookie stood by the chair each time to hold Annabel’s wrist with one pudgy hand, and the rattle with the other. It was the only time Annabel saw the worry come back into her parent’s faces.
The thread was woolly and loose when she was let into the garden. Annabel spun the rattle between her fingers without thinking about it, and the sound of bells followed her as she walked, so familiar that she no longer heard it. It wasn’t until she was at the decorative fountain that a queer kind of silence fell on her ears, and she realised with a nasty lurch of her stomach that the thread was gone.
Annabel gave a small squeak of dismay and pressed two plump fists to her mouth. She was never sure what was supposed to happen if the rattle came off, but it had been implied that its loss would lead to Terrible Things. She made a frantic dash back the way she had come, her eyes scanning the ground for the silver gleam that would give it away.
She wasn’t sure when she noticed the difference. It could have been when she tumbled over a ragged clump of grass (Father made sure the lawn was scythed every third day), or it could have been the sudden, horrible chill in the air (home was always warm), and the smell of something unfamiliar in the air. Annabel picked herself up carefully, a tear trembling at the edge of her left eye, and as carefully stood still until the tear went away. Then she looked around her. The sky was darker than it had been, and Annabel, who hadn’t yet begun to learn about the cycles of the triad, was confused. Why did the suns look so odd in the sky? Where was the house, the fountain, the gardens? Had she fallen asleep? Had the afternoon passed to dusk while she was sleeping? Was she, perhaps, like the Sleeping Princess?
No, she decided. She had been awake the whole time. That meant magic. Magic had taken her somewhere else. Annabel trotted onward, her brown eyes studious and her chubby cheeks pinked by the chill, until she found that she was stuck. She couldn’t see what she was stuck in and the ground was just ground, so she decided that was magic, too.
Annabel was still stuck in the enchantment when a witch came along to prod her and chuckle gleefully.
“Oho, you’re a nice specimen!” said the witch. “What a fine fish for my net!”
“Not a fish,” said Annabel, biting her lower lip. Tears were threatening again– proper tears, this time, and she didn’t at all like the looks of the witch.
“No, but you’re a tasty little trifle just the same,” said the witch. “Who would have thought that Old Grenna would pull such a plump little morsel! How have you escaped the clutches of every wizard this side of the Ice Wall?”
This didn’t make sense to Annabel, so she said again, cautiously: “Not a fish.”
“No, dearie,” said the witch. “Not a fish. Certainly not a fish. Come along with you: it’s bread-and-butter time.”
“And that was it,” said Annabel, plopping herself down on a half-block of marble. She and Peter had sneaked away to the old Ruins, the skeleton of a grand castle that had been their playground since the day they first met there. “That’s all I remember.”
“Yes,” said Peter, “but that’s just a dream, Ann. You know it didn’t really happen that way.”
Annabel looked at him without blinking, her chin perched on her plump fists.
“But it didn’t, Ann! It couldn’t have! If you had a cook and gardeners, that would have to mean that your parents were nobles, at the very least!”
“I don’t know about that,” said Annabel, “but I remember. They’re not just dreams.”
“You’ve been with Old Grenna for as long as I can remember: you were sitting in on her spells when you were four. People don’t remember things that long ago.”
“I know Old Grenna isn’t my mother,” Annabel said positively.
“Anyone with a lick of sense knows that,” said Peter. “She’s a thin old stick and you’re as fat as butter. Goodness knows which cradle she pinched you from. I just said you’ve been with her for as long as I can remember.”
Another time, Annabel would have asked why his remembrance was any more to be trusted than hers; but it was a pleasant, sunny, and not-too-cold day, and it was too much effort. Besides, Peter had brought sweets and hadn’t yet shared. Instead, she said: “What are you working on, anyway?”
“One of the tickerboxes has started cannibalising the others,” said Peter. He had the little black box on its back with its jointed legs stiff and curved above it, a hatch open on its stomach. Through this hatch, he prodded doubtfully at miniscule cogs and screws with an equally tiny screwdriver. Annabel could just see moving clockwork in layers, tick tick ticking away as he worked at it. “I wouldn’t mind, only I want to know why. I didn’t program it to do that. I think it’s building something from the pieces.”
Peter shrugged and hunched his shoulders over his work. “Something different. Extra parts for itself. I don’t know what.” There was an irritated line between his straight brows that Annabel perfectly understood. Peter didn’t like not understanding things. He liked to think that he knew everything. “Ann, tell your cat to leave my cog pieces alone!”
“He’s not my cat,” said Annabel, but she scooped Blackfoot up anyway. He bit her nose gently and let her pat his head.
“I don’t understand what you see in that cat,” grumbled Peter.
“That’s because he scratches you.”
“Did you notice that another one’s turned up?”
“Yes,” said Annabel. She’d seen the second cat yesterday, a small ginger thing slinking around the edges of the Ruins. Blackfoot had arrived first, five years ago, and sat scratching at her shutters each night until she finally gave up and let him in. Annabel was entirely disinterested in cats, but it wasn’t long before Blackfoot was sleeping on her pillow by sheer force of personality.
“Well, stop attracting them. One’s bad enough.”
She tickled Blackfoot’s ears. “Maybe it’s an invasion.”
“You can’t call two cats an invasion,” said Peter, always willing for an argument. “Pass the magnifier.”
Annabel went back to Grenna’s cottage by the long way that afternoon, Blackfoot trotting along behind her. In theory, she disliked any path that made her walk further than she had to, but Grenna had sent her out that morning in search of lillypilly berries and water from the old well, which meant that there was magic happening that afternoon. And magic meant that Annabel would be sitting for hours, stiff and crosslegged, on cold, hard flagstones. Grenna would draw chalk lines on the stones around her, mix ingredients, and mumble. Then the magic would start up, but Annabel never knew exactly when, so it was always safer to keep her hands tightly folded in her lap. She only knew when it was over because Grenna told her so, smudging out lines and dismissing her irritably to her room. By then, Annabel would be exhausted. She sometimes hoped this meant that she had done magic along with Grenna, but none of the spells she tried by herself had ever worked, and Annabel now thought of herself as merely one more of Grenna’s ingredients.
Annabel arrived at the cottage as the triad was making long, late afternoon shadows from the hedgerows. The lillypilly berries were in her apron pocket, slightly squashed, and a tiny, leather-covered flask sloshed with water from the old well. Annabel had collected them before she met Peter in the Old Ruins, and they were rather the worse for wear.
She stopped at the gate while Blackfoot leapt lightly through the bars, and then quite deliberately rubbed a handful of dirt across the side of her face. Blackfoot stopped and sat on his haunches, staring accusingly as Annabel pulled a handful of hair from her plait and let it flop messily on her shoulder.
“Oh, shut up!” she told him crossly, wiping the last of the dirt on the front of her pinafore. It was faded, but it had been clean this morning. She carefully slumped her shoulders, hunching them forward and frowning at the dirt until she felt the familiar look of blank stupidity settle across her face. Then Annabel opened the gate and plodded up the path and into the cottage.
Grenna pinioned her with a glare as the door opened. “Home at last, are you? I suppose the well got up and walked away?”
Annabel blinked once, slowly and heavily. “No,” she said. “It’s still there.”
Grenna gave vent to her own particular inarticulate crow of annoyance and snatched the bottle of water from Annabel’s outstretched hand.
“I fell down,” said Annabel sorrowfully, into the silence. “I hurt myself.”
“Where are the berries, idiot child! Curse me sideways for having the kindness to nurture an imbecile!”
“Here they are,” Annabel said, plopping two handfuls of battered, juicy lillypilly berries onto the table. “They’re not squashed.”
“Not squashed! The juice streaming from them and she says they’re not squashed! Don’t lick your fingers, stupid child! We’ve work to do and I won’t have you dreaming away while you should be concentrating.”
“Never you mind, nosy niggle. Wash your face and change into your flannels.”
“It’s hot,” said Annabel. “Flannels are hot. Ow!”
“Get away and change before I clip the other ear!”
Annabel shuffled toward her room, one hand clasping her red ear. Flannels meant big magic, and she regretted coming home at all. She could have slept on the heather in the back hills if she’d stayed away: Grenna would only have stomped around the house for a while and cursed her for an imbecile.
When Annabel entered the workroom, hot and uncomfortable in her flannels, Grenna was busy drawing chalk circles. In the centre of one of those circles was a sleek, smoky grey cat. It was so sleek and smooth, in fact, that it wasn’t until Annabel got closer that she understood how very big it was. Sitting on its haunches as it was, its head was just above knee-level.
“There’s a cat,” she said, not troubling to hide her surprise.
“A very special cat,” said Grenna, her face shiny with satisfaction. She turned back to her work and added curtly: “Don’t smudge the lines, or I’ll wallop you from here to the turnpike. Sit down.”
Annabel obediently sat down and waited. Much to her perverse delight, when Grenna turned around again it was to huff in annoyance: “Don’t sit there, you stupid lump! Sit in the circle!”
“You said sit down,” Annabel said mournfully, climbing heavily to her feet. Sometimes the stupidity could be a kind of game. “I sat down.”
“Did you change out of your cotton underthings?”
Annabel said: “Yes,” and sat gloomily in the centre of the circle. Her flannel underthings were particularly itchy, but under the grey cat’s blue gaze she didn’t quite dare to scratch. There was a reason Grenna didn’t work magic around cotton, but Annabel didn’t really understand it and was always resentful of the discomfort of flannel.
Annabel stopped fidgeting, but the cool amusement in the grey cat’s eyes made her say: “Are you going to use the cat?”
Grenna gave a high, crowing: “Ha! Use him! Use him! I should be so addled!”
A tight little ball of fear clenched in Annabel’s stomach, and she thought that the amusement in the grey cat’s eyes deepened. She settled herself more solidly on the floor, sinking into herself until she was looking out on the room with bland, stupid cow eyes, and readied herself for a long wait.
Blackfoot was curled up on her pillow when Annabel, weary and sore, returned to her room. She closed the door behind her and propped herself against it, rubbing her hands across her face to rid herself of the tiredness and stupidity and lingering nastiness.
Blackfoot sat up, managing to stretch in an entirely sarcastic manner, and regarded her with slit eyes. Well, it was quite the exhibition today, he said.
It was always a bit of a surprise to hear Blackfoot speak. Annabel blamed Peter: he was so insistent that Blackfoot didn’t—couldn’t—speak, that it was hard to persevere against his determined disbelief. It didn’t help that Blackfoot’s voice wasn’t an audible one: it made Annabel feel, somewhat uncomfortably, that it was quite possible she was merely mad.
“Mind your own business,” she told him. It was easy to be rude when she was half certain that his voice wasn’t real. Besides, Blackfoot was almost invariably sarcastic, and, real or not, could always be said to deserve a rude remark or two.
It is my business, said Blackfoot, leaping to the floor. It’s embarrassing to have a human who pretends to be imbecilic.
“If Grenna knew I’m not an idiot I wouldn’t be able to spend so much time in the ruins with Peter.”
Not to mention having to work much harder, mocked Blackfoot.
“She tells me things she wouldn’t tell me otherwise,” said Annabel. “It’s safer like this. I can get away from some of the bigger magic when she thinks I’m out drooling in the forest. Anyway, I’m not your human. I didn’t ask you to stay. I didn’t want you sleeping on my bed– or eating half my dinner!”
You could do with a little less dinner in any case, said Blackfoot, but he twined himself around her ankles and purred anyway.
“I’m sure no one else has voices in their head that insult them,” said Annabel gloomily.
Don’t start that again. I told you, I’m not a voice in your head. I’m–
“I know, I know,” grumbled Annabel. “You’re using the enhancement field to amplify and project a meta-stream of conscience–”
“Yes. That. I don’t understand it.” Annabel thought about that, and added darkly: “Peter would.”
Peter is a cocksure little ragamuffin, said Blackfoot.
“Yes,” said Annabel again. “Only he is very clever.”
Hmf. Fishing for compliments, are we?
“No,” Annabel yawned. “I’ve always been the stupid one. I know that.”
Oh, go to bed, said Blackfoot. He vanished into the inky shadows beneath the bed, but when she had changed into her cotton nightie and climbed beneath the covers he appeared again, startling Annabel by springing noiselessly from the shadows to her pillow.
“I’m allergic,” she told him, half-heartedly shoving him off the pillow. Blackfoot, a slithery whisp of shadow himself, merely flowed around her shoving and curled back up on the pillow. Annabel huffed, turned her ear to his furry warmth, and went to sleep.
By the next day there were twenty or so more cats at the ruins. Annabel saw them when she climbed into the crumbling courtyard, each stalking the others with the greatest of dignity. Blackfoot hissed at them with his ears flattened and said something beneath his breath that Annabel didn’t catch.
She said: “Don’t be rude,” anyway, and then: “Why are they all coming here? And where’s the one from last night?”
Blackfoot hissed again, his ears back. You didn’t say anything about a cat last night.
“You were too busy being sarcastic.”
“Still talking to the cat, I see,” said Peter’s voice. He must have been right behind her, because he leapt from the huge outer stones as Annabel turned her head.
“There’s more of them,” she said, ignoring the remark.
“I noticed,” said Peter. “Keep them away from my tickerboxes.”
“They’re not mine!” Annabel protested. “I can’t stop them from doing whatever they want to do!”
Peter gave the half-shrug that conceded a point. “Oh well, I’ll think of something.”
“Did you bring it?”
“Of course I did. Here: it’s proper quality stock.”
Annabel caught the carelessly tossed book with reverent fingers and caressed the blank pages. “It’s perfect! Tell your mother I’ll send her a portrait for payment just as soon as I can make the ink and find another pen.”
“I’m not sitting still for a portrait,” said Peter ungratefully. “She’s got piles of paper and books at home, what else could she do with them but give ’em away?”
“Well, I think it’s lovely to have a paper merchant for a stepfather,” Annabel said enviously. “All that wonderful paper, and ink you don’t have to mix! I’d never stop drawing.”
“You never stop drawing anyway. What are you meant to be doing today?”
“Nothing. Grenna said I was getting in her way.”
“You might as well come to lunch, then,” said Peter, shrugging off his coat. His shirtsleeves were already stained with greasy brown marks and there were spots of the same on his suspenders.
“Thanks,” Annabel said, not at all perturbed by the backhanded invitation. Grenna had her on a diet of bread and water, claiming that Annabel was eating her out of house and home. Peter’s Mother, on the other hand, was free with cheese, apples, and pastries, and was round enough not to care if Annabel was more than a little bit round too.
Annabel settled herself on a convenient slab of stone with her new book and searched for the nub of pencil that was always tucked away in her front pinafore pocket. She preferred drawing with pen and ink, but when neither were to be had, her tiny pencil was nearly as good. It had the added advantage of not leaving her face and hands ink-stained at the end of the day. It also had the advantage of a tiny eraser at the other end, a luxury to which Annabel didn’t otherwise have access.
She amused herself with sketching different angles of Peter’s face, content to sit cross-legged on her stone while he amused himself with his tickerboxes. She didn’t understand them, anyway.
You don’t try to understand them, said Blackfoot. He was sitting on her shoulder, his whiskers tickling her ear. He always liked to watch her draw. You like to think you’re stupid.
“I am,” said Annabel equably, shading the cracks between flagstones.
“You are what?” Peter demanded, shooting her a sharp look. “You know, if you keep talking to yourself you’ll soon be as mad as a pair of wet gnau in a hole.”
“I was talking to Blackfoot.”
“Got a lot to say this morning, hasn’t he?”
“He’s always got a lot to say,” said Annabel, with a private smile for Blackfoot. He hissed, but not at her: over Peter’s shoulder, three more cats were springing lightly into the ruins. “Did you figure out what your tickerbox was up to?”
“Oh, that’s actually very interesting!” said Peter, immediately losing interest in Blackfoot. Blackfoot made a rude noise somewhere around Annabel’s ear, though she wasn’t sure if it was aloud or not. “It was cannibalising the others, just like I thought, and it was building itself a secondary engine.”
“Oh. What for?”
“The main engine was getting overheated with the speed of the rotor shaft–”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Speed and movement cause heat– don’t do your cow eyes at me, Ann! The simple explanation is that the tickerbox was getting too hot, so it made itself a cooling engine with the rotor shaft and a few blades from another tickerbox.”
“Should it be able to do that?”
“Of course not. It’s not magic, it’s clockwork. It can’t think.”
Piffle, said Blackfoot. He may think it’s just clockwork, but he’s got so much magic dripping off him that he couldn’t stop it influencing the clockwork if he tried. Not to mention the enhancement field– you’re not listening to me, are you, Nan?
“Blackfoot says you’re wrong,” said Annabel, applying herself to a profile view of Peter.
“If the cat thinks it can do better, it’s welcome to try.”
Annabel drew in the annoyed crinkle in his brow.
You said one of the cats was at the house last night, Blackfoot said to her. What was Grenna doing?
“Don’t know. Something big, though.”
How was the spell performed? Was it laid out, item-based, or free-form?
“She laid out the spell,” said Annabel, sketching another view of Peter with one of his brows up and his head cocked to hear better, his eyes still stubbornly on his tickerbox. “But the laying out looked like it was for item-based spells, only instead of items in the circles it was me and the cat.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Peter, plucking at a wire strung tightly through his tickerbox. “The spell wouldn’t work. It’s meant to flow from the ignition point and through each of the components to its conclusion. You’re not a spell or an item. The flow would stop at you.”
You should have told me this last night, said Blackfoot.
“What’s the cat saying now?”
“He’s saying I should have told him this last night,” said Annabel. The odd quality to Blackfoot’s voice was setting off uneasy flutterings in her stomach. It almost sounded as though he was afraid. “Wait, I thought you didn’t believe Blackfoot speaks to me.”
“I don’t,” said Peter, hunching his shoulders over the tickerbox again. “I just find your psychosis interesting: you’re having conversations with yourself. Why would you have told the cat about the spell last night?”
Annabel shrugged one plump shoulder. “Don’t know.”
Things are happening far more quickly than I expected, said Blackfoot, as though to himself. I should have taken you away the minute the first one turned up.
“Taken me away?” said Annabel blankly. “Why should I go away? And do you mean the cats?”
They’re not cats.
“What’s it saying?”
“He says the cats aren’t cats.”
Peter tutted. “Wrong again.”
“Don’t be smug,” Annabel told him.
He’s right and wrong, Blackfoot said broodingly. They are cats. They just weren’t always cats. And some of them are less cat than others.
Annabel thought about it, and came to a surprising conclusion. “Like you, you mean?”
Blackfoot bit her ear. That’s not important. What’s important is that you don’t go back to Grenna tonight.
“I have to go home tonight!” protested Annabel. “Where would I sleep? What would I eat?”
Peter gave a rude snort of laughter, and she threw a pebble at him.
“Blackfoot says I shouldn’t go home tonight.”
“Oh, if that’s all, you can use one of our guest rooms. Mum likes having you around: says you’re restful company and you eat everything put in front of you.”
“I bet you said something rude when she said that,” said Annabel.
“And she clouted me for it,” said Peter cheerfully. “All right, if your psychosis is telling you that something’s up, you’ll probably be safer at our place: Grenna gets up to some nasty bits of magic.”
“Well, we’d better go soon,” Annabel said, with a doubtful look at the positive stream of cats that had begun to flow into the ruins. “We’ll be swimming in cats if we stay here much longer.”
That’s it! That’s Chapter One of Blackfoot! If you want to preorder before April 17th, you can access the Kindle and Kobo preorder pages by clicking on the respective names. For Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, iBooks, and Google+, sign up to THIS NEWSLETTER that only gets sent out when I release a book. You’ll have the right links in your inbox on April 17th!