The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr won the 2015 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. The Book of Whispers is an imaginative and gripping historical fantasy novel set during the first Crusade, in a world where demons are real and gaining power, and almost no one can see them. Strap yourself in for an epic mediaeval adventure!
Tuscany. AD 1096.
‘Luca! Luca! Master Luca! Sir Luca!’
The demon knows my name!
Returning from a morning ride, I pull hard on my reins, dread surging through me. The creature babbles, bizarre sounds halfway between coughing and words. His repeated ‘Luca!’ is all I understand.
From the side of the stable, the spindly, scaly demon pulls away from the pitchfork it’s tethered to, towards me. I don’t often see their leathery sheen so clearly. It takes energy for one of them to become visible to me. This demon is excited and fully formed. Its angular wings and sharp talons look as real as the stable door behind it.
The pitchfork demon raises one of its four scabby arms, beckoning me. My charger, Orestes, slows and snorts, air steaming through his nostrils.
I look around, checking I’m alone. Seeing demons causes me as much trouble as the demons themselves.
Orestes is nervous. I feel the beat of his heart, massive beneath my saddle. He shakes out his black mane and takes slow steps towards the demon. The earthy leaf meal smell of trampled mud drifts around us. I lean forwards, and murmur encouragement in his twitching ear.
As we approach, the demon’s legs dissolve into a smoky outline. It leans back against the wall and says something in a deep, guttural tongue, a language I don’t understand.
I hear a yell. ‘I won’t stay here with you!’
My sister! Gemma’s voice is high pitched, her words tinged with an emotion I don’t associate with happy, determined Gemma. It’s anxiety. Maybe even panic.
I spur Orestes towards her voice. Nearing the demon, waves of nausea crash over me. I lean slightly to one side in case I’m about to vomit. I must reach Gemma.
‘Let me go!’ she yells.
I glance back at the demon. Had it been calling for me to help my sister? Surely not. Then I turn the corner of the stable and see who Gemma is with, and I understand. It’s my cousin. Demons love trouble. They love human pain and misery of any kind. The demon knows my reaction to this scene will produce far more pain than leaving Gemma to suffer on her own.
‘Narlo!’ I yell, peering down at the young man who has his long fingers firmly wrapped around my sister’s wrist.
Narlo looks up at me and smiles. He’s wearing a quilted gambeson over his tunic, ready for our fencing lesson later on. The smile doesn’t reach his eyes, and he doesn’t let go of Gemma’s wrist. Instead, he pulls her roughly to him, slamming her against his chest and twisting her around so they’re both facing me. Seeing my sister’s face makes me angrier. Gemma is twelve years old and the image of innocence in her white tunic, a crown of bruised daisies in her hair. She pants, blue eyes dilated with a mixture of fear and fury as she gazes up at me between strands of curly brown hair.
Narlo lowers his jaw in a quick mock bow. All thoughts of the demon flee my mind. ‘You’re meant to be out riding,’ Narlo says. ‘Sir Luca.’
He stresses my title with a sneer. Narlo continues to live with us, long past his squire’s training, as a favour to his parents. But I’m the one who’ll inherit the vast de Falconi estate one day. He’s always been jealous.
‘I see I’m back just in time.’ I snap my whip through the air. ‘Let go of my sister.’
Narlo snarls like a dog. He has the temper of one as well— something he keeps well hidden from Father. ‘Your sister,’ he repeats. ‘My fiancée.’
Gemma makes another furious attempt to break free. Narlo yanks her against his chest.
I leap off Orestes, hardly believing my ears. ‘Your what?’
‘You heard me. My fiancée. Your father agreed to our engagement this morning.’
I scoff. My father would not make a decision without consulting me.
Narlo’s sneer turns into a grin. Like a demon, he enjoys my confusion. ‘Now, Sir Luca, if you’ll leave us, I’m busy teaching my fiancée what married people do.’
Gemma lets out a sob. With the tip of my whip, I catch Narlo behind the knees. He gulps, startled, and accidentally lets Gemma go. She runs to me.
Now Gemma is clear, I flourish the whip more fully, using a full sweep of my arm to crack it twice: first near Narlo’s left ear, then his right.
Narlo stands stock-still. Behind me, I hear a burst of demonic chatter, a clicking noise like lizards running up and down the walls. Demons gather, dancing shadows that partially materialise, some revealing feathered, fibrous and taloned legs. A sulphurous smell overpowers the odour of the stables. The pitchfork demon has summoned demons of its own kind. They don’t all look like this. Some are superficially beautiful, with the faces and figures of young women; others are more animal-like, with beaks and claws. I don’t understand their words but their tone is clear. These demons are disappointed. They’ve been watching Narlo and me for years and love to see us fight.
‘Gemma, go back to the house,’ I tell her.
‘My...my eggs,’ she says, pointing at a basket that’s been knocked over. A few eggs are broken, but most are intact.
‘Get them first,’ I say quietly. ‘Narlo’s a coward. He won’t attack you again while I’m here.’
Narlo pulls down the front of his gambeson and tugs his tunic into neat order. He looks very fine for a poor man. My stepmother does a good job cutting down Father’s old clothes for him.
He tries to smile again. The gesture still doesn’t reach his eyes but the surliness has gone. As long as I have the whip I have the better of him, and he knows it.
‘Attack is a harsh word,’ he says.
Gemma keeps her distance from him as she walks back to the chicken coop and picks up her basket. Narlo watches her bend over. The expression on his face sickens me.
‘She’s twelve years old,’ I remind him. Narlo is eighteen, nearly a year older than me.
Narlo’s pupils are dilated. ‘Girls can be married at twelve,’ he reminds me. ‘She’ll be mine soon enough.’
I crack the whip one more time. Gemma shrieks and runs uphill to the house. ‘Not if I have anything to do with it,’ I vow.
Narlo steps closer. He knows I won’t hurt him if I don’t have to. He’s the one with out-of-control rages.
‘You won’t have anything to do with it,’ he says threateningly. ‘When I’m married to your sister the estate will be made over to me, Sir Luca. I will be the next Conte de Falconi. You watch.’
I shake my head. After all these years, I can’t believe Father doesn’t see how malicious Narlo is. When I tried once to explain, Father simply said, ‘It’s normal for young men being raised as brothers to have some animosity.’
I keep my whip in hand as a groom races out to take Orestes and return him to the stable. I follow Gemma back to the house. Narlo catches up with me.
‘Gemma will be my wife,’ he repeats. ‘You should leave us alone and get back to your usual crying about the poverty of our peasants.’
I shake my head again, watching my boots churn through the mud underfoot. Narlo and I routinely argue about the tenants of Father’s cottages. One particularly cold winter, I donated one new blanket to each cottage, only to have Narlo later go from family to family demanding one denarius for each blanket. I soon put a stop to that.
‘I know what you want,’ I tell him.
‘You don’t need demons to tell you that.’ Narlo never misses a chance to remind me about the time I confessed to seeing demons—or the torture I faced as a result. ‘I want what every man wants. Property. Respect.’
‘You’ll be a beggar once I tell Father what I just saw.’
Narlo snorts. ‘He’s a man. He’ll understand. Whatever you tell him, I’ll be the one alone with him while we’re crusading.’
‘Crusading?’ I ask sharply. A familiar image floats into my mind—Father’s body, broken and bloody, in a foreign land. A nightmare I’ve had too often. I brush it away. ‘What do you mean, crusading?’
Narlo pauses. ‘You really don’t know?’
‘Know what?’ My whip twitches, eager for use.
Narlo bristles with self-importance. ‘Your father has decided to join the Pope’s great pilgrimage after all,’ he says. ‘He’s taking me as one of his knights. We leave in two moons.’
‘He told you this?’
‘While you were riding.’
This can’t be true! Many moons have passed since Pope Urban II called for a great pilgrimage to free the city of Jerusalem from the hands of Saracen Turks. Father insisted that no de Falconis should go, even when I begged to be allowed to put my knightly training to use. Why would he change his mind? And why take Narlo instead of me?
I race into the villa’s kitchen, where our noonday meal is nearly ready. Venison and bread are laid out on the table near Gemma’s basket of eggs. Cook stands at a bench, slicing pork.
She turns as I run in, her mouth a wide slow O of surprise.
‘Master Luca! Hungry again! It’s—’
‘Is Father upstairs?’ I ask.
Cook shakes her head. ‘I saw him near the olives.’
I sprint outside, through the kitchen garden. Pungent herbs reach out to me with their scents. Then down the worn track, past a stand of poplars and further, down the steep slope of our nearest olive grove. One of our grooms, Desi, is working on a broken ladder. He’s a tall, broad-shouldered man who’s been with our family since before I was born.
He looks up. ‘Master Luca?’
‘I need to find Father. Where is he?’
Footsteps crunch behind me. My stepmother, Anna, runs up. She’s breathing with difficulty. Her pregnant figure is hidden beneath a wide white apron covered in green stains. A green leaf pokes out from her dark hair. She must have been in the kitchen garden, her favourite place, when I passed through.
‘Onorato?’ Anna asks. ‘Has something happened to him?’
‘I need to find him,’ I repeat. ‘Desi, where—’
Anna lays a green-stained hand on my forearm. ‘Let me,’ she says. ‘Desi, have you heard anything since this morning?’
Desi shakes his head.
‘Since this morning?’ I repeat. ‘What happened this morning?’
I shake her off. Anna is not my mother. My mother died when I was six years old, just after Gemma was born.
‘What happened this morning?’ I demand again.
‘Nothing to make you fearful, Luca,’ Anna says. ‘Your father’s gone to a gathering in San Gimignano. That is all. I wanted him to tell you. But he was worried you’d insist on going.’
Anna swallows and nods. ‘Your father says we must stay here so I can teach you how to run the estate.’
‘All my training, all that fencing, and he wants me here looking after vines and olive groves?’
‘He’ll be home soon,’ Anna says. ‘There’ll be time to talk then.’
I look around. The blue sky, the giving earth, the fruitful trees in their neat green rows. The upcoming pilgrimage is for the glory of God, the Pope said. But how could anything give more glory to God than this?
I let Anna lead me to a fallen tree, smoothed over and made into a kind of bench, where we sit. ‘We all have places we want to go. You know how much I’ve always wanted to go home, Luca. There are some things that we just can’t do.’
I know she gets homesick for Rome, where she grew up, but I have a new obsession of my own. ‘Anna, what’s the real reason for Father not wanting me there?’
She looks down. ‘The Pope has called for a religious army dedicated to driving Saracens and demons from the Holy City.’ She pauses. ‘Demons, Luca.’
My demons are famous. People know of my exorcism and worry that I bring bad luck or evil.
‘Luca, think about it!’ Anna implores.
‘There aren’t any demons,’ I say flatly.
Anna sighs. ‘You’re agitated. It’s nearly time for noon prayers. Come inside. I’ll tell your tutor to leave now and return tomorrow. If you want to talk to your father, spend time on your own first, Luca. Plan what you need to say.’
I lie on my pallet after our noon meal. The few mouthfuls of venison I could eat are heavy in my stomach. In the corner of my chamber, between a large chest and a shaded window, a dark shadow lurks. I ignore it. I’ve ignored them for years. Sometimes I can ignore even the demonic shapes the creatures solidify into when they want my attention.
The shadow moves. I ignore this, too—or try to. Moving is something shadows do, I remind myself, as the sun moves across the sky, as branches wave.
Along with the rest of the house, I try to nap. I don’t know if the shadow demon is fooled. I never sleep well. I hear noises, reverberations, not-quite-words. I hear sounds like the brittle snap of kindling, the rustle of turned parchment. Feathers, fluttering and folding down the rippled strength of muscular wings. Sometimes it’s because the horses make unexpected noises, stomping and whinnying as though they have an urgent warning. Other times the wind blows through the poplars outside my window like a thousand quiet voices murmuring words I can’t quite hear. I can never forget my exorcism and what Monsignor Ramberti showed me happens to people accused of cavorting with demons.
Gradually, I doze. But whispers invade my dreams. Demons have whispered to me before, forcing nightmare prophecies into my mind. My nightmare returns. I see Father’s hair, once as brown as my own but now greying, pooling in the dust around his pale face.
Blood streams from Father’s mouth, between his too-long whiskers. The startling redness of that blood! I know from past fencing injuries that blood is always too red. Father’s eyes frighten me the most. They turn to me without focus. A tall pale-haired figure in an iron-coloured cape approaches him, as menacing as a vulture. I don’t know who he is—but the hand he reaches to Father bears the nacreous sheen of demon skin.
‘Go away!’ I roar.
The shape rears up, and steps away. My dream-self falls beside Father, upon red-streaked mud.
‘Father!’ I cry. ‘Father!’
My dream-self reaches for Father’s hand, using my other arm to shade Father’s face from the ferocious sunlight.
‘Father! What happened? Where?’
But Father’s eyes stare through me. I look over my shoulder but can make nothing out in the blinding light. I turn back. Father rests one hand on the softness of his stomach. Blood spreads out there as well. Father’s eyes are still, then closed. He opens his lips as though to say something. Perhaps that’s the whispering I’ve heard. I lean closer.
‘Don’t let me go,’ he says. His breath smells coppery, meaty. I hold his hand until the blood darkens.
I throw my head back and wail, and wake up in my own chamber. The dark shadow has moved back to the corner, where it sits expectantly.
I toss my tunic over my head as I run along the long hall to the stone stairs. Gemma is on her way up. She gapes at me, then grabs my arm.
The vision has stained my eyelids. I see it still when I blink: Father lying in a bloody heap on foreign soil.
‘Luca,’ Gemma says. ‘What’s wrong?’
I tell her about my dream. ‘I have to find Father!’
Gently, she takes my arm. ‘You’ve had a nightmare. You don’t want to run downstairs. You’ll alarm the others. Luca!’
Alarm the others. Shame washes over me. My dreams. One day, I suspect, they will cost me everything. I stare at the ground as though shame puddles there.
No, confessing would not be good for Father or for me. And no, I don’t want to alarm anyone. I imagine the rumour already. Through the kitchens, through the sheds where we age olives in barrels of brine, through the stable, the words would flow as steadily as that trickle of blood down Father’s cheek. People’s whispers rustle like poplar leaves.
Master Luca is having those dreams again. His demon is back.
I can’t let that happen. I can’t let people lock me up and exorcise me again. I can’t let Father leave on the pilgrimage without me. I have to save him.
Later in the afternoon, I sit at the window of my chamber, watching Anna in the kitchen garden below and waiting for Father. Though my tutor left, I’m meant to be studying, to enter university in Bologna—very soon, if its teachers haven’t all joined the pilgrimage—and have a lot of Latin to learn first.
Codex. Codices. Codicis. Codicum. Codici. Codicils.
I’m distracted and the declension of words runs together. The army of knights and peasants will take many moons, maybe years, to pass through Anatolia and the Levant and reach Jerusalem. The Pope promises direct entry to Heaven to anyone who takes part. It’s an adventure that will never happen again. Father has to see why I must go!
The hours slip by, through afternoon prayers and towards evening vespers. The sun begins to set. There’s a noise downstairs. Father!
I leap to my feet and race downstairs to the entry hall.
Father stands there, tall in his linen tunic. Servants are busy helping him with his cloak.
‘Father! I need to…’ I begin.
But he raises a hand to stop me. ‘It’s evening, Luca. Time for vespers.’
But after prayers, Father stalls me again. ‘Cook has prepared a fine meal for us, Luca. It’s important for Anna to eat regularly.’
Finally, meal over, he beckons me to follow him upstairs, to the chamber where he works by the light of an olive oil lamp. He sits at a table behind a row of wax tablets used to record rents and crops from our tenants. Watching me through deep-set blue eyes, he raises greying eyebrows as an invitation to speak.
‘I know about the gathering today,’ I begin. ‘I know the real reason you sent me away to inspect our hives. There’s nothing wrong with those bees.’
‘I knew you’d hear.’
‘You know I want to go to Jerusalem. You told me we’d both stay here.’
‘That was my plan. But Grand Contessa Matilda has ordered all landholders to go. All landholders, Luca. Not their sons. I won’t risk your safety or our family’s future by taking you with me.’
‘It isn’t fair!’ I can’t keep anger from my voice. ‘The pilgrimage will be glorious! You’ll see Jerusalem again. You’re always speaking of your last journey. I should be allowed to go.’
Father’s expression grows still more serious. Last time he went to Jerusalem was just after my mother died. That was also when demons first came to me. ‘Times were different,’ Father says. ‘I was in a small group. We were welcomed into the Holy City, to pray and worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Now we go to do battle.’
‘You say battle like it’s wrong!’
Father pauses. ‘Jerusalem is a civilised city, Luca. Its people have welcomed us in the past, though they worship another god. They don’t deserve pain.’
‘Its people are Saracens!’
Father continues as though I hadn’t spoken. ‘I’ve been instructed to go. Matilda is Margrave of Tuscany. Her word is law. I don’t have a choice. But I have a choice about you.’
‘If all knights must go, that includes me.’
‘I’ll be taking enough knights, Luca.’
‘You’ll be taking Narlo.’ Father looks at me steadily. ‘Narlo doesn’t have to learn how to run this estate.’
‘So that’s it? Narlo gets to make his fortune at war while I’m inspecting bees and counting olives?’
‘I have no other son!’ Father’s anger nauseates me like a demon breathing at my shoulder. He calms himself before continuing. ‘This pilgrimage isn’t about riches, Luca. Our farmers are going. Their families are going. Many people who don’t seek riches in this world are going. Those with impure motives must fail.’
‘Farmers are going! Men who don’t know how to fire arrows! If children go too, I don’t see what harm can come to me.’
‘You’ll be staying here, Luca. I have decided.’
I storm out, leaving father with the false certainty that all is resolved. But I’ve made my decision. I will join the pilgrimage.
Gemma follows me into the yard and the fragrant evening air. ‘Did you talk to Father? About Narlo?’
Guilt stabs me. How could I have forgotten Gemma’s problems?
She must read my answer on my face. ‘I won’t marry him! I’d rather be a nun! I want to learn things! Like Matilda!’
‘You will,’ I tell her. ‘I will talk to Father. I promise.’
First, I need to work out how.
Father’s various duties keep him locked in his chamber for a few nights, and, just as I decide to insist on talking to him there, he rides away from the villa for business that Anna tells me will take three sevennights. ‘There’s a lot to be organised before everyone leaves,’ she adds.
She’s right, of course. As Conte, Father is responsible for justice in many towns and hamlets. I won’t see him for nearly one full moon. Hopefully, this will give me time enough to work out what to say.
The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr will be available in October 2016. Sign up to the Text newsletter to stay up-to-date with all of our books.