A Song for the Telling

Alina A Song for the Telling

Malve von Hassell

In this coming-of-age novel set in the 12th century, Alina, an aspiring musician from Provence, 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.

Book Excerpt

Chapter 8 - Wind in the Desert (excerpt)

The last evening before reaching Jerusalem, we rested on the outskirts of a village.

After days of traveling through blowing sand and rocky plains, I was surprised to find gentle green hills and groves full of fruit trees and olives. We ate roasted meat on sticks and flat pieces of bread, and Milos brought me a little beaker of red wine and a bowl with dried dates. As usual, I sat apart from the other women. But I didn’t mind too much. Truly, I had nothing in common with them. On the other hand, it was unthinkable that I sit with the men.

Sand had gotten into everything I owned. I gave up trying to shake it out and resigned myself to being covered with a layer of dust until we arrived in Jerusalem. My hair was even more disheveled than usual, and I could taste the salty sweat on my cracked lips. My eyes burned from the hot glare of the day. I was tired.

And I was happy.

It was as if I was drunk on the colors of the desert, the silence, the vastness, and the impersonal harshness, drunk on traveling and on being far away from home. With one ear I tried to catch the sounds of the men talking. Occasionally I could make out Count Stephen’s voice.

“Let’s play some music.”

Startled out of my reverie, I glanced around. Milos had walked over and crouched on the sand next to me. He helped himself to a date. “How about it?”

I hesitated. During the journey from France, it had seemed a natural thing to do in the evenings, but now with Count Raymond, Count Stephen, and other older knights, I felt uncomfortable. I hardly needed to draw more attention to myself.

“Come on, Alina. This might be the last chance we’ll have for a while.”

Reluctantly I took my lute out of its wrappings. “What would you like to sing?”

“How about Can vei la lauzeta?” Milos asked. “Bernart de Ventadorn is so young, people here might not yet have heard his music.”
Bernart was a troubadour from Corrèze in Limousin, and a few months before we left for Jerusalem an itinerant troubadour had played this song and others by Bernart, and both Milos and I took a liking to them.

For a moment I yearned for home. Right now the hills would be covered with wild thyme. I began to play a few chords, and then Milos began to sing, softly at first. Heads turned, and a few of the knights wandered over to listen to us.

Behold the lark
Dancing
In the sun’s rays and
Swooping into the depths, borne down by the delight in its heart.
It makes me yearn to be one with all who have tasted happiness.

After the first few lines, I forgot my discomfort. Milos and I had done together this so often that we didn’t even need to look at each other for cues about when to increase or lower the volume or when to slow down or to pause. For Milos, it was just one of many facets of his being. He liked to perform, but he had never hounded our father to teach him new songs.

For me, it was so much more—not just a joy, but something vital in a way I couldn’t explain. Maybe in part it was because I could control it when I couldn’t control anything else. Perhaps it had been like that for our father as well. Of course he was a man, and nobody could force him into a marriage or tell him how to act. So maybe it wasn’t the same. Anyway, for me it was more than that.

When Milos finished, the last drawn-out note echoing through the still evening air, I made a sign to him and whispered, “Now it’s my turn. I’ll sing Ar em al freg temps vengut.”

Milos shook his head. “But that’s about winter, and it’s too long,” he whispered.

“We’ll do just a few verses,” I said stubbornly. All afternoon I had watched the shifting light transform the desert into a glowing purple void, the silvery green leaves of the scrubby desert brush the only signposts reminding us of the ground beneath our feet. I had kept thinking of the right music to convey all this splendor. Finally, I remembered the song my father taught me by the trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues. Gently I strummed the strings and began.

Winter is upon us, and time stands still,
Trapped in ice and snow and mud.
All birds have fallen silent
(for none wants to raise her voice in song).

Milos picked up his flute and followed my voice. The melody was sparse and severe, a song of immeasurable sorrow, glorying in desolation. It was as if one could hear the high-pitched whistling and groaning sounds from a frozen lake, echoing across the ice.

Now, with the heat of the day drifting away into the darkness, the flute’s plaintive notes evoked the wind sweeping over the sands. I kept my eyes on Milos as I sang. A hint of sadness in his eyes reminded me of our father and his lost, hungry expression at the end.

When we drew to a close, Milos lowered his flute, but I didn’t want to stop yet.

I concluded with one of my father’s pieces. Eerily, he had composed it a year before my mother died. It was about a dreamer who walks through a misty valley, blind to the flowers at his feet, in search of his love. He walks and weeps and does not hear the birds all around him. Faster and faster he rushes through the woods. His steps lead him to the brink of a ravine. He never falters as he steps into the void. I didn’t sing the lyrics, instead just picked out the chords of the simple melody.

A last dark note and I placed my fingers on the strings to still them. When I raised my head, I looked directly into the face of Count Stephen. He had moved quietly to join the others listening to us. The fire lit up his features—plain, with a jutting nose and a wide mouth slightly off-center, a broad forehead, and grey eyes under thick brows. Courteously he inclined his head toward me and smiled. It transformed his face.
I realized that I was staring at him, and felt myself go red, hoping he could not see this in the dark.

“Thank you, Mistress Alina. I hope we will hear you perform again.” Then he turned and walked away.

The next day we arrived in Jerusalem.

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Malve von Hassell is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator. She has published three historical fiction novels for young adult readers, The Falconer’s Apprentice (namelos, 2015) Alina: A Song for the Telling (BHC Press, 2020), and The Amber Crane (Odyssey Press, 2021). She is working on a trilogy featuring Queen Adela of Normandy.

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