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Excerpt: The Rookery by Deborah Hewitt

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Return to Deborah Hewitt’s magical alternate London of The Rookery as The Nightjar Duology continues!

After discovering her magical ability to see people’s souls, Alice Wyndham only wants three things: to return to the Rookery, join the House Mielikki and master her magic, and find out who she really is.

But when the secrets of Alice’s past threaten her plans, and the Rookery begins to crumble around her, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to save the city and people she loves.

“Superb, darkly charming…. It’s a delight to explore the Rookery…” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Rookery by Deborah Hewitt, on sale 08.10.2021.


PROLOGUE

Doctor Burke’s desk was a graveyard of broken spectacles. Cracked frames had been discarded under folders or loitered next to empty cups. The doctor’s weathered hands fumbled blindly for a pair and shoved them onto his face, only for one of the lenses to fall into his lap. With a sigh, he squinted through the remaining lens at the results of Alice’s blood test.

After a moment, he opened his mouth as though to speak, but instead licked his thumb and turned the page. He was a small but hardy-looking old man, shriveled at the edges like something left out in the sun, with tufts of white hair protruding from every orifice.

Alice glanced at her mother and raised her eyebrows at the unusual display on the surgery wall. A squirrel played a violin directly behind her mother’s head. Next to it, a pair of foxes sporting dungarees sat on a miniature tandem. Nothing, however, could top the stuffed owl in a mortar board, posed in front of a tiny blackboard. Its enormous glassy eyes stared at Alice in vexation, as though she was about to be handed the dunce’s cap. Ugly taxidermy littered every shelf. Not the most encouraging thing to find in a doctor’s office.

It was a good job Doctor Burke didn’t know there was a living animal, of sorts, right under his nose. A very small brown bird, its wings tucked against its body, was perched on the doctor’s shoulder. He couldn’t see it because it was a nightjar, and these particular nightjars were visible only to aviarists like Alice. She was one of perhaps only a dozen aviarists worldwide.

Turning in her seat to avoid the macabre display, Alice studied the doctor’s bird. In Finnish mythology it was known as a sielulintu: a mythical bird that guards the soul. Everyone had one, whether they were aware of it or not. Her mother, the human dynamo known as Patricia Wyndham, was completely oblivious to her own nightjar crouched on her knee.

The image of a stuffed nightjar flashed briefly through Alice’s mind, and her lip curled in distaste. Doctor Burke’s soul-bird was tiny, with a streak of faded coppery brown running along its back. Its muddy-coloured feathers were plain but it had a slightly battered look. Two shining black eyes regarded Alice with a solemn air.

‘Well,’ said Doctor Burke finally. ‘A little out of the ordinary.’

‘Oh God,’ her mum murmured. ‘Is it bad news? I knew we should have made an appointment sooner.’

He put the results down and looked over at Patricia Wyndham, whose face had stiffened. After a moment’s pause, the doctor waved her fears away. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ he said, and Patricia sank into her chair.

‘That’s a relief,’ she said. She turned to Alice. ‘Isn’t it?’

Alice ignored the doctor’s reassuring smile, staring instead at the quivering feathers of his nightjar. Its claws rhythmically tightened and relaxed while its wings made short, jerky movements: all signs of its discomposure. Alice’s alertness sharpened.

‘When you say a little out of the ordinary,’ she said, sitting forward, ‘what does that actually mean?’

Doctor Burke’s eyes drifted down to the results again. ‘Well,’ he said, flustered, ‘you’ve low oxygen saturation levels and a touch of anaemia.’

I’ve been saying for weeks you were too pale,’ said her mum.

‘And the test the nurse did last time,’ said Alice. ‘The low blood pressure – is that connected?’

Doctor Burke hesitated and pushed his broken glasses further up the bridge of his nose. ‘If you’d prefer me to make a referral, a friend of mine works at the big hospital in Castlebar—’

‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘Thank you, but no. It’s only a bit of dizziness; I’ll cope.’

She hated hospitals. Every time she set foot in one, the smell of disinfectant triggered memories of the night her best friend was hit by a car. That night had changed everything. For months afterwards, Alice had believed that Jen was lying comatose on a ward and that it was her fault. Visions of Jen wasting away in a hospital bed had haunted her. But it had all been a lie. Trickery.

Lungs rattling, Doctor Burke coughed into a handkerchief and jolted Alice from her thoughts. She was glad of the distraction.

‘Iron tablets,’ he said, prodding the handkerchief into his suit pocket and reaching for a pen. ‘It’s nothing that a course of iron tablets won’t fix.’

He beamed at her and she glanced at his nightjar. To the well-practised aviarist, soul-birds mirrored what was hidden in their owners’ souls, revealing their thoughts and feelings, insights and lies. Alice wasn’t yet as accomplished at reading the birds’ behaviour as she hoped to be, but she was a fast learner. Lies made nightjars restless and ill at ease.

‘Iron tablets and good country air,’ he said, ‘and you’ll have nothing at all to worry about.’ The wings of his nightjar shivered as he spoke and its head rocked back and forth in agitation.

Alice frowned. Occasionally, she wished she wasn’t an aviarist. Some lies brought comfort.


The car boot slammed shut with such violence the Nissan Micra swayed on its wheels.

‘Careful,’ said Alice. ‘You could’ve lost a finger.’

Her mum grinned. ‘It’d be worth it,’ she said, hugging a tea towel  – wrapped plate to her chest. ‘Just wait till you try this. Breda Murphy’s treacle bread,’ she said, gesturing at the prize in her arms. ‘It’s a top-secret Irish recipe, apparently. Breda says she won’t tell me what it is until I’ve been here at least a decade.’

They started up the driveway towards their whitewashed cottage, pausing only to inspect the freshly mown lawn.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Patricia murmured, looking out over the garden. ‘He’ll think he’s got one over on me, mowing the grass before I’ve had the chance to nag him over it.’

Alice laughed at the accurate assessment.

‘Go on then,’ said Patricia, shaking her head. ‘You do the knocking; you’re more musical than me.’

The front door was deadbolted and fitted with more locks than Fort Knox. There was no key hidden under a mat, and no open front door in this quaint little cottage. It was probably the only house in County Mayo with an alarm system that cost more than the car on the driveway and CCTV buried under the ivy on the walls.

Security considerations had been Alice’s first priority when they’d moved here. Alongside the locks and alarms, she’d insisted on a secret code to let them know it was safe to open the door to each other. It had been a bit overkill and was now something of a running joke, but no one had suggested dropping it. Which was why she found herself knocking the beat to Greensleeves on the front door for nearly two minutes before it swung open.

‘I was waiting till you reached the chorus,’ said her dad, beaming down at her. ‘But you missed the second verse and the whole thing went to hell.’

Michael Wyndham was a balding man-mountain with kind eyes and a perpetual smile. ‘Well?’ he said. ‘What did the doc say?’

Alice held up her bag of iron tablets in answer. ‘Anaemia. He said I’ll be fine.’ It wouldn’t do her parents any good to know the doctor’s nightjar had contradicted him. She’d already filed that away to think about later.

‘I see you’ve been busy,’ said Patricia, closing the front door behind them. Michael gave her a smug look, and Alice watched them sizing each other up. Patricia was the smallest, most formidable woman Alice knew. Five feet tall at a pinch, faded bobbed hair and oval glasses perched on the end of her nose.

‘Cup of tea?’ asked her dad, cracking first.

‘Oh, lovely. And when we’re done, you could run the mower over the bit you missed by the wall.’

Alice snorted in amusement, but was distracted by an explosion of noise in the hallway. Scuttling paws hurtled across the floor towards her, scratching and sliding on the wood. Two shaggy white blurs of excitement, turning in frantic circles, their tails going like windmills: her Westies, Bo and Ruby. She dropped to her knees and they launched themselves at her, wriggling in her arms like eels, arching round to jump at her face and lick her hands while she laughed.

‘We’ve a new postman, by the way,’ said Patricia. ‘Did I tell you?’

Alice’s laughter died in her throat. She got to her feet, her skin prickling, and shook her head.

‘What does he look like?’ she asked carefully.

‘Oh, he’s about ninety,’ said Patricia. ‘Harmless. I checked. We’ve followed all of your instructions to the letter.’

‘No slip-ups,’ said Alice.

‘No slip-ups,’ repeated Patricia, marching off to the kitchen, where Michael was clanking the cups around with increasing haphazardness. She shooed him aside and filled the kettle.

Alice watched them from the hallway with a pained expression on her face. She just wanted to keep them safe. They’d left all their friends behind to move to Ireland – including Jen’s parents, the Parkers, who had been their next-door neighbours for twenty years. They’d lived in Dublin briefly before settling in Glenhest, where there was less chance of discovery. And yet, it wasn’t just her parents who were in danger – she was too.

Having the ability to read souls and separate truths from lies was a wondrous thing, but the downsides could be fatal. There were those who would give anything to control her gifts, and others who would give anything to destroy them. Alice had already had several run-ins with one such group, spearheaded by a government operative called Sir John Boleyn. His foot soldier, Vin Kelligan, had gone after her parents once, and she wasn’t taking any chances now – but the truth was, they’d be safer when she left.

And she was leaving. Soon. She’d been offered a research assistant post in the Department of Natural Sciences at Goring University  –  in London’s magical sister-city, the Rookery. Her departure had only been delayed until the blood test results had come through. Patricia Wyndham had made it clear that no daughter of hers would leave home without a full bill of health. The circles under her eyes and her shortness of breath on her daily walks had troubled them.

‘Will you have treacle bread?’ her mum shouted out to her.

Alice watched her parents’ nightjars fluttering around the kitchen together, never less than inches apart. They were perfectly synchronized – the result of thirty years of marriage to your soul mate.

‘Maybe later,’ she replied, with a faint pang in her chest. Watching their nightjars together always brought home the fact that, despite her gifts, she hadn’t seen Crowley’s nightjar until it was too late. Their nightjars had never been in sync because Crowley had never been honest about who he really was.

Alice shook her head and turned away, but the sharp movement made her light-headed and she swayed onto her toes. She threw out a hand against the wall and scrunched her eyes shut until the moment passed. The gaps between her dizzy spells had been growing shorter lately. Breathing deeply, she pushed herself away, still gripping the bag of iron tablets. Bo and Ruby scurried along next to her like a personal escort; somehow, they always seemed to know when she wasn’t feeling her best.

There was a package on her bed. Alice froze in the doorway before approaching it as she would an unexploded bomb. Her name and address were scrawled on the front, but other than her new employer there was only one person who knew where she lived: Crowley.

Alice’s eyes roamed over the familiar handwriting; it was every bit as spiky as its owner. A sudden rush of nerves caught her breath. He wanted her to return to the Rookery so he could make things right with her – he’d even sent her the university job advert, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist – but it was too late. She’d told him not to contact her again, so why the package?

Crowley had taken advantage of her distress when she’d believed that Jen was in a coma and her nightjar missing. He’d offered her a chance to save her friend and retrieve the lost soulbird. But Jen was never in a coma – it was another woman who was lying in a hospital bed: Estelle Boleyn, Crowley’s sister. He’d tricked her into saving Estelle’s nightjar – and in the end, they had both failed. Estelle was still comatose and Jen was now dead.

He had tried to explain, insisting that he had genuinely believed Jen was suffering the same miserable fate as his sister, and that Alice, as an aviarist, could find both nightjars and save both women. But in his desperation, he’d kept up the charade even when he’d discovered Jen was already safe and well. It had been a lie of omission, not maliciousness, he’d insisted. He’d been driven to great lengths out of love for his sister, and she’d have done the same for Jen. But for Alice, his lies were just too big. Even his name was a lie. He had been born Louis Boleyn, and was the son of Sir John Boleyn, leader of the Beaks: the man hell-bent on destroying both the Rookery and Alice herself; the man who had ordered Jen’s kidnapping so that Alice would work for him; the man who was the reason they knocked Greensleeves every time they came home. Still  .  .  . given her own peculiar situation, she could hardly blame Crowley for wanting to hide the identity of his father.

Alice tore the package open and frowned at her unexpected bounty: half a dozen copies of The Rookery Herald and what appeared to be an application form. She knew immediately why Crowley had sent the newspapers. Scooping them into her arms, she carried them to the back garden and dumped them under the rowan tree in the corner. Alice frequently sketched under its branches, sheltered from the sun.

She sat cross-legged on the grass and pulled the nearest Rookery Herald to her. It looked like an old broadsheet, crammed with articles and headlines that screamed from every page: House Ilmarinen member denies arson! Claims sambuca accident to blame!, Chancellor Litmanen considers naming national holiday after himself and Attempt to create waterfall feature in Thames ends in disaster! Adverts for Oxo Chocolate and Lauriston’s Long-Life Candles sprang from between the articles. She studied every page with care before dragging the next one nearer and repeating her inspection. She paused on a piece about a necromancer who’d been jailed for turning up at funerals only to pass on embittered messages from beyond the grave. It felt so strange to sit flicking through stories from another world – a world of magic – while her parents bickered over lawnmowers.

There was a flicker of movement at the corner of her eye. A tiny razor beak, pin-sharp claws and elegant feathers glided past. Alice’s nightjar. It tucked its wings back and swooped into a barrel-dive, pulling up at the last minute with a dramatic toss of its head. Alice sighed. ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’

Nightjars had one important function: to guard the soul. It was the nightjar that brought the soul to the body at birth and protected it throughout life. At the moment of death, the birds departed with the soul for the Sulka Moors, the Land of Death. But Alice’s nightjar functioned differently. Her bird didn’t protect her soul; it protected others from her soul, a fact she’d discovered the night she’d almost destroyed the city. Her nightjar wasn’t a guard – it was a jailer.

Something juddered, and the kitchen window swung open with force, jolting Alice from her thoughts.

‘You forgot your tea,’ her mum shouted through the gap at the bottom. ‘Shall I bring it out?’

Alice smiled and shook her head. ‘I’ll come in for it in a minute. I can always put it in the microwave.’

Her mum looked appalled. ‘I didn’t raise you as a heathen,’ she said, closing the window again.

Alice stared at the window fondly. The Wyndhams had raised her and loved her. They were her parents in the truest sense of the word – but she shared no biology with them. What they did share was so much more important, and yet, over the past few months she had acquired a constant reminder of her difference: her distinctive nightjar.

Aviarists were usually blind to their own soul- birds until the moment of their death. Since Alice had become so intimately acquainted with death, she’d been gifted with the unusual ability to see hers all the time – and what she saw was exceptional.

Nightjars were usually varying shades of brown, but Alice’s was pure white. It was a stark reminder that she was special in the worst possible way.

Only two others in all of existence had had white nightjars –  and both of them were Lords of Death, the Lintuvahti. Alice had met the reigning Lord of Death twice, a young man with icewhite hair. His predecessor, who had abandoned his post as ruler of the Sulka Moors, was her natural father, Tuoni. Alice had been told, once, that she was made of death. And she was – in the most literal way.

Bleached feathers glistening in the sunlight and wings sweeping powerfully at the air, Alice’s nightjar circled her head flamboyantly. Attention seeker. She ignored it, as she had done for much of the past few weeks.

Moving slightly so that the bird stayed out of her eyeline, Alice pored over the Rookery newspapers. She was searching for something very specific and hoping she didn’t find it.

Copyright © Deborah Hewitt 2021

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