We’re officially one month from the release of Trial by Song! I thought I’d celebrate by sharing an excerpt from Chapter 1!
Trial by Song
Dangling from his second-story window, Jack stared up at the carved yellow eyes of the sentinel balanced on the sill. From this angle, the pumpkin’s crooked grin appeared sinister. Rather than repel spirits from the Otherworld, it leered as if to say they were already there.
Under its flaming gaze, Jack was man enough to admit that he’d made a mistake. He wasn’t strong enough to climb back inside to safety—his arms shook just trying to keep his chin above the ledge. With every second his guitar strap rode up his chest. Already it had a stranglehold across the base of his windpipe.
He eyed the distance to the ground. Naked spears of withered forsythia jutted up, brittle sentries in closed ranks to keep him from sneaking away.
His sneakers scraped the wood siding trying to find footholds. He held his breath, hoping his family inside couldn’t hear. His left hand slipped.
One moment he dangled fifteen feet in the air, and the next his heels slammed into his mother’s flower bed so hard white-hot darts stabbed up through his ankles and his breath whooshed out in a shrill hiss.
“You know,” said a mild, mocking voice from behind him as two hands slid under his arms to hoist him to his feet. “When people say ‘break a leg’ you’re not actually supposed to do it.” His brother, Logan, patted the dirt off him. Jack shook him off quickly to check that his guitar was alright. Logan swung his green gaze from Jack to the window and back again.
“I get that this is your first time sneaking out and all, but don’t you think out the window is a bit melodramatic?”
“Didn’t have much choice. Mom’s still awake, and her door’s wide open. Douglas got called out on patrol. She’s been in there pacing for over an hour. She’d be blowing up your phone too if she didn’t think it was buried beneath a pile of clothes in some cheap motel around here.” It helped that Logan was twenty and free to do as he pleased. Logan buffed his fingernails against his tan sweater with a flash of teeth.
“It’s still early.”
Jack limped past him to the driveway where Logan’s faded, white Mustang idled. The trunk yawned open, but Jack laid his acoustic guitar across the cracked leather back seat and fastened the seat belt over it for good measure.
“Really?” Logan’s reflection shook its head in the rearview mirror as he slid behind the wheel. Jack tightened the belt until the guitar rested flush against the cushion. He ran his thumb over the faint signature below the bridge. “I know how you drive. I could buy ten cars for what that guitar’s worth.” But Logan wasn’t listening. His face had gone very stiff. His eyes fixed on Jack’s bedroom window. Jack whirled around to see their mother’s flannel-clad figure leaning out at them.
Despite being close to sixty their mother, Edna Sorley, seemed to defy middle age. Its only signs were the ever-widening streaks of gray hair she was too busy to color, and the trench-like frown lines earned over decades of wrangling her seven sons.
She jabbed her finger down at them.
“Get back in the house right now, do you hear me? I expect this from him, but you, Jack?”
Jack clenched his fist and looked at the ground. If he raised his head he’d have to face the betrayed expression that held him back every other time he’d tried to chase his dream. Logan watched from the driver’s seat, waiting to see what he would do.
Jack gritted his teeth.
Far away as she was, his mother saw the exact moment she lost him.
“Don’t even think about getting in that car! Do you hear me? Jack? Jack!”
Jack didn’t hesitate again. He dove into the passenger seat. Logan grinned and threw the car in reverse. They barely cleared the driveway before Jack’s pocket buzzed. ‘Keith,’ the name of their oldest brother, flashed across the outer screen. Jack stuffed his hand-me-down phone into his pocket and pinched the bridge of his nose. As soon as one call went to voicemail, a new one came in.
Logan wrinkled his nose with sympathy.
“I feel for you, man—I really do. Just remember, come March she can’t legally ground you anymore.”
They bounced over deep ruts where chunks of well-worn asphalt had broken loose. Taking his eyes from the road, Logan leaned over to inspect his teeth in his side mirror. They hit a bump that sent their stomachs somersaulting. Logan grinned, but Jack pressed his fist against his forehead, trying to convince himself that if Logan hadn’t killed himself in the four years since he got his license he could keep the record going for at least one more night. He was in enough trouble without Logan wrecking the car.
“She can’t help herself.” Jack defended their mother out of habit. “The fae have been more active than usual lately. Haven’t you noticed?”
“Nope,” Logan said, popping the ‘p’. He leaned forward to drape a brown wave of hair over his eyes using the rear-view mirror. Just when he seemed satisfied, another rut made his head bounce and his hair tumbled back to the way it looked before. Jack resisted the urge to check on his guitar.
“Every time I’m uptown I see goblins lurking in the shadows. The park is crawling with hags, and a band of spriggans set up camp in the woods behind the school. Vinny had to throw out his entire harvest this year because the fae put a curse on his land. Even Keith couldn’t save it. Keith!”
“You know how he is. Maybe he didn’t want to risk interfering. A lot of farmers had bad yields this season. Someone would notice if Vinny’s crop wasn’t affected.” Jack studied his faded sneakers.
“Winterthorn is back.”
Logan mashed the breaks.
The shriek of skidding tires raised the hair along Jack’s arms. He tasted burnt rubber, and the smell stung his eyes.
They whipped toward the edge of the road, and Jack flung both hands at the dashboard as if that would save them from careening into the ditch. They skidded to a stop, spraying gravel into the two-foot drop-off.
Breathing unevenly, Jack pressed his nose to the glass to see how narrowly they’d avoided disaster. Logan yanked him around by his plaid, cotton sleeve. All laughter was gone from his face now.
“You saw Winterthorn—with your eyes? He’s back and you didn’t say anything?”
“He may have seen me too.” When Logan’s face spasmed, Jack rushed to explain. The words tumbled over themselves. “It was about a month ago. I was on my way to talk Stevie into convincing her brother to let me compete tonight. There was a funeral heading up Main Street. He was following them—the Wild Hunt was with him. I-I’ve never seen anything like them. They were massive! They had red, glowing eyes, and their teeth were like—” Logan released his sleeve to pinch the back of his neck. Jack cringed to a stop.
“I don’t care what they looked like. Focus. Did he recognize you?” Jack grimaced.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It happened too fast. As soon as I looked up we locked eyes and I froze up—just like in the stories. It was like he’d turned me to stone. If he hadn’t turned his head I think I would’ve just…. But he kept walking, and as soon as he broke the connection I could move again.” Jack rubbed away the goosebumps that prickled the backs of his arms.
Outside a breeze kicked up bits of leaf and twig to pepper against the windshield. Logan sat back and ran his hand through his hair—completely undoing his earlier work.
“Look,” he said after a moment, “he can’t still be mad that Dad freed his girlfriend from that spell. That was decades ago for us and probably centuries for him. Now that Dad’s gone he doesn’t exactly have a reason to hold a grudge against any of us. I mean, we didn’t do it. You said he was with a funeral. It was probably just a coincidence you were walking by.” With each word his tone grew more confident.
Jack’s doubt must have shown on his face because Logan thumped the steering wheel with the heel of his hand and barked with laughter.
“You’re telling me that you’d risk running into him for fifteen minutes of spotlight and a chance at a little studio time?”
Jack nodded without hesitation.
“It’s not just the studio time. There’s bound to be talent scouts there tonight. When I win they’ll—” Logan’s nose wrinkled.
“It never occurred to you to just send in an audition tape like everyone else?”
Jack clenched his jaw, but the knot in his chest unraveled.
“This’ll be my big break. Everyone will be there! News crews, possibly agents, even—”
Logan put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“You don’t have to twist my arm. I already promised I’d take you. Besides, it’s not like Winterthorn would attack in front of all those people—even if they can’t see him. He probably won’t even be there.”He returned his attention to the wheel, projecting a confidence Jack wasn’t sure that he shared. With a jerk, the Mustang rolled back onto the road.
Raindrops sprinkled the windshield, gathering into a steady drizzle as they passed from forest to farmland. Jack drummed his fingers against his knee. Immediately a soft, silver glow engulfed his hand. Static crackled over the speakers, drowning out the local rock station. He noticed Logan’s uneasy glance and forced his hand still. The light winked out and the eighties rock ballad returned, but a heavy silence stretched between them.
“Thanks for doing this,” Jack murmured twenty minutes later as the orange and purple lights of a Ferris wheel appeared in the distance.
“I was going to be out here anyway. Daisy called….” Logan waggled his eyebrows. Jack’s stomach turned over.
“You mean you’re not going to stay and watch?”
Logan shifted in his seat.
“I’ll try, but Daisy usually has other plans.” He rubbed a finger across his upper lip trying to hide a smirk at what he expected those plans to be. The anxiety Jack had been fighting since they left the house returned in full force.
“You’re just going to leave me here?”
“Calm down.” Logan swatted the air between them. “I’ll be back by ten to get you. You’ll be home and under house arrest long before the monsters come out to play.”
The Mustang followed the line of yellow tape roping off a lane through the open field and pulled into a parking space behind an oversized red truck.
The two guys hopping down from the raised bed were football players Jack recognized from school—Carl McGuire and Kevin Shrouds. Aiden Doyle, long-faced with deep-set brown eyes, slid out of the driver’s seat and scanned the field. When he spotted Jack, his burly features hardened in an arrogant dismissal before he turned back to his friends.
Jack exhaled gustily and tried to ignore them, but when the linebacker, Carl, crossed his eyes and mimed playing a flute Logan’s eyebrow shot up. Jack wanted to bury his head under the seat.
While most of his classmates doodled during class, he filled the margins of his notebooks writing music. Three weeks ago, his homeroom teacher, whose wife taught Music Theory at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, caught him writing out Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ from memory. Mr. Gryne spent all of homeroom that day and the next marveling at its accuracy, which only alienated Jack further from the other students who already thought he was odd.
“Logan, don’t say anything. It’s not a big deal.” He sensed the storm gathering behind his brother’s meticulously groomed façade.
“What? I’m just going to talk to them.” Logan, the picture of innocence, opened his door. “Hey fellas!”
His voice—pure compulsion—formed a soft silver mist. It floated toward the group with unerring precision. Their heads swiveled just in time to inhale the cloud. In unison the arrogant expressions relaxed into vague, welcoming smiles even though none of them had met him before. Only the dark-skinned boy, Kevin, looked mildly confused as he scratched his head trying to place where he knew Logan from.
Still in the car, Jack suffered a stab of jealousy. Logan had been born with the gift of persuasion. All he had to do was open his mouth and he could convince anyone to do anything—well, not anything. According to Logan he couldn’t force someone to do anything truly against their will, but so far as Jack had seen no one’s will had ever gone against Logan’s.
“This is a nice truck.” Logan inspected the orange running lights on the scarlet pick-up.
“I know, right? Aiden’s dad gave it to him for breaking the school passing record.” The blonde wide-receiver, Carl, supplied the information with pride, as if friendship entitled him to a claim on Aiden’s skill.
“You must have quite an arm.” Logan held out his hand, palm up. “Prove it.” The silver mist was thicker this time. To Jack’s eye it was as if a smoke ring hit Aiden full in the face, but he knew Aiden didn’t see a thing. He blinked several times as the suggestion took root then grinned at his buddies and dug in his pocket for his keys.
“It’s about fifty yards to the trees,” Logan said. “Think you can make it?” This time the suggestion was so thick that Aiden coughed, but after he recovered, he hefted his keys in his hand, eyed the distance across the field, and lobbed them as hard as he could over the rows of cars. Logan watched them sail into the shadows with a satisfied smirk. It was impossible to see where they landed in the dark. Carl whooped, Aiden preened, but Kevin cocked his head with a frown.
“Well, you sure showed me.” Logan dusted off his hands. “Look, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Go enjoy the fair, fellas.” This time he gave them only a small push, enough to make them forget the keys and the issues that came with not having them later when they were ready to go.
Aiden high-fived his friends, and they turned and walked off for the ticket booth without a backward glance. A father wrangling his three kids nearby twisted his head in the direction the keys had flown.
“Did he just…?”
“Yes. Yes, he did.” Logan interlocked his fingers to stretch his arms full out in front of him.
“Isn’t he going to need those later?” The dad asked wryly. Logan grinned.
By that point Jack had dragged his guitar out of the back seat. He scowled when he drew level with Logan.
“What?” Logan’s eyebrows lifted in response to Jack’s scowl. “He did it, not me.”
“You told him to.”
“It’s not like I told him to jump off a bridge. He’s a show off. He wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t want the attention.” Before Jack could follow that trail of logic to its disturbing implications, Logan’s pocket jingled. He pulled out his cell phone, winced when he answered at the crackle of static from standing too close to Jack, and moved several steps away.
“Daisy! Of course, gorgeous. You’re where?” He flashed Jack a not-so-apologetic smile and covered the mouthpiece. “She’s waiting for me at the Ferris wheel. I gotta’ go. Good luck with your show. Go knock ‘em dead.” He flashed a thumbs up and hurried off. Jack slipped his guitar strap over his head, taking comfort from the familiar weight resting against his back. The air hummed with magic, and the hairs on the back of his arms rose.
A pair of girls dressed in fishnet stockings, tulle skirts, and store-bought wings giggled as they passed. One glanced back and whispered something to her friend. Jack set his jaw. In hindsight maybe he should have put together a costume. A quick look around confirmed that even the laziest fair-goers had themed t-shirts or face paint. Jack wore only a pair of dark jeans and a thin cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He’d been going for unassuming, but tonight his lack of disguise made him more conspicuous.
He headed toward the ticket booth. It was easy to spot with the word ‘Ticket’ written in glowing bulbs. To make it feel spookier, someone had switched out the regular yellow lights with bulbous, green ones. By the emerald glow Jack made out a stooped figure standing to one side of the ticket window. His senses went on high alert, zeroing in on the bent form that was decidedly not-human. The next man in line didn’t so much as glance at the fat, hairy fingers that reached out and snatched the bills from his hand. He blinked, looked down, and then bent to search the ground for his money. When he looked back up the goblin had settled a stack of brittle leaves on the counter disguised by glamour to look like the missing cash.
It was a trick as old as the relationship between humans and fae. No doubt by morning the ‘money’ would resume its true shape. The fair would believe they’d been robbed. No doubt the goblin would plant another stack of ‘evidence’ on an unsuspecting victim just to sit back and watch gleefully as the poor dupe’s life upended around him.
The goblin’s over-wide mouth pulled into a sinister grin as the next customer stepped up to the window. Suddenly, he lifted his gorilla-like snout and sniffed. Slanted red eyes swiveled to where Jack stood, and Jack quickly pretended to scan the crowd. His heart pounded and sweat dampened the thin material under his arms.
Had the goblin sensed him? It was hard to say. There were plenty of other sounds and smells that could have gotten its attention.
Just then, the opening chords of a guitar riff blasted above the noise of carnival games. Jack forgot about the goblin. He checked his watch, shook his wrist and held it up to his ear for good measure. The Battle of the Bands wasn’t supposed to start for another fifteen minutes! He stared in dismay at the ticket line.
“Jack, over here!”
He looked around to see Stevie from the gas station waving to get his attention. Orange and purple lights glinted off her horn-rimmed glasses as she cut in front of a woman pushing a stroller. A glow-in-the-dark skull decorated the black t-shirt she wore beneath her gray blazer.
“Hey, glad you’re here. They started early because Chemical Fire’s fans were starting to go crazy. You don’t have to buy a ticket. Come on, I’ll take you in.” She put an arm around Jack’s shoulder, steering him past the ticket collectors. When one of the girls gave them a suspicious look, Stevie waved a laminated ‘Stage Crew’ tag hanging by a lanyard around her neck.
Chemical Fire was a local garage band that had gained a small following after playing a few bars in Cleveland. In person, Jack wasn’t impressed. Only the lead guitarist had any real talent. The drummer looked like he had to concentrate to hold a steady beat, the backup singer kept trying to overshadow the lead, and the bass guitarist stood as far from the audience as the stage would allow, hiding behind her shoulder-length black hair. Still, Jack caught himself nodding along to their medley of horror movie themes.
An ear-splitting scream rose above the guitar’s whine. It snapped at Jack’s nerves like a rolled up wet towel, but judging from the bobbing, grinning heads around him, no one else heard.
Careful not to draw attention, he looked around until he spotted a forest troll at the back of the crowd. Eight-foot-tall and as wide as two grown men, it was hard to believe no one else noticed it even if they couldn’t see it without Faery Sight.
The troll clutched a pink-haired pixie in its fist, squeezing until the insect-like body bulged with displaced organs. Baring mossy teeth in a mean smile, it shoved the pixie into its wide mouth. Seconds later a deep-bellied belch sprayed flecks of iridescent wing over the couple standing oblivious beside it.
Suddenly the thump of the music was too loud, the press of bodies too close. Jack wiped his palms against his jeans. His hands were shaking.
A roar of applause made him jump.
“Talk about a tough act to follow,” crowed Stevie’s brother, Corey, into the microphone. “But if anyone can do it, it’s our next act, Straifield’s very own Jack Sorley!” He preened for the audience in his black and gold Elvis costume while he waved Jack onstage.
For one moment Jack considered backing out. The fae were everywhere. There were even more of them than he expected. As soon as he started to play they would see the power glowing on his hands. If they caught him he would be lucky to meet an end as swift as the pixie’s had been. They might stab out his eyes, or chop off his ears, or….
Stevie slapped him between the shoulder blades and shoved him toward the stage. Hundreds of eyes watched him. He couldn’t turn back. With stiff movements Jack climbed the aluminum steps and pulled his guitar over his head.
Although he’d rehearsed all week, he didn’t have a plan for what he was going to play. He trusted the right songs to come to him in the moment. It was the way his gift worked. But in that moment, with panic mounting to his brain, a void existed where the right notes should have been. Cold sweat filmed across his forehead.
This had never happened. He’d always been able to trust the music to be there when he needed it.
Stalling, he waved to the crowd. His hand shook visibly so he grasped the neck of his guitar in a too-tight grip. The silence grew uncomfortable.
Someone made a quacking sound and several people laughed.
Taking a deep breath, Jack lowered his head, settled his fingers over the strings and closed his eyes. Relax. One…two…three….
Rather than the up-tempo music the audience was expecting, the melody for a love song poured out. The light that blazed from Jack’s fingertips was so intense it left the spotlights in shadow.
The troll jerked around, still grinding the pixie between its teeth. Its mean, black eyes narrowed on Jack.
At the edge of the stage a faery appeared in a puff of smoke. Her lime-green gaze fixed upon Jack with unwavering focus even as she shielded her face from the light of his song. By slow degrees she lowered her hand and began to move. She wound her body in a sinewy dance that defied the sweeping rhythm he set. She reached out, beckoning with long, pale hands.
Jack’s fingers slipped. She recoiled from the sour note with a hiss that revealed two rows of yellow teeth. Jack recovered quickly and moved to the other side of the stage even though instinct screamed for him to keep her in sight. He faltered again when he glanced back to see her dragging her skeletal body onstage. Her head undulated in time to his song. Their eyes locked for a fraction of a second. Triumph blazed on her face as his legs locked in place. His breath caught in his throat. There was only one way to save himself.
Jack snapped his strings.
One moment the air was filled with music wrung from the Otherworld, and the next there was disoriented silence. The spellbound crowd blinked and shook their heads, trying to figure out where the ethereal music had gone.
“Guess I got a little carried away.” Jack stammered into the microphone. “Thanks. You’ve been a great audience.” In the precious seconds it took to make his small excuse, the faery hauled herself to the center of the platform. Throwing caution to the winds, Jack hopped to the ground and ran before she could lock gazes with him again. Stevie called after him, but Jack broke into a sprint. Boos and jeers chased him.
So what do you think?
Want to jump straight into the adventure as soon as it comes out? You can preorder the book HERE. Stay tuned for more special content as the release date draws closer. If you’re as excited as I am leave a comment and share!