This is the first draft of the very beginning of A Down Called Alice. This will be a full length novel with the tagline Discworld meets Downton Abbey and starring a young heroine from a distant country – a heroine with attitude.
The novel is currently around 30% done, but I thought you’d enjoy this sneak preview.
The eagle soared through the pristine sky, screeching with pure joy. She’d been sitting on her eggs for the past week while a relentless combination of rain, fog and high winds kept her off the wing.
But today? Today was glorious.
Reggie could mind the brood. With any luck, the merciless little monsters would hatch while she was away and her mate would be left with the thankless task of teaching three fluffy machetes how to behave while they waited for her to return with food.
She might have felt sympathy for Reggie, but she was an eagle, so she didn’t care. She was flying!
Rising and falling, she first cut through the air like a dagger as she play-swooped, then spread her wings wide as if embracing it. It had been so long since she’d felt such bliss.
But, she was hungry and if there was anything more joyful than flying, it was the prospect of tearing some small furry creature into beak-sized chunks.
She looked down at the domain of the earthbound. If she was capable of pity, she’d have felt it for all those creatures who would never know the thrill of the wind blowing through their limbs. But she was an eagle, and pity as alien a concept as picking your pants up off the floor is to a teenager.
Dropping into the slower, warmer winds that hugged the land below her, she was, for a moment, disoriented. She scanned the landscape for the shapes she knew, shapes bred into her from the generations of mountain eagles that had gone before. There, the distinctive hook of their ancestral mountain home. Yes, she’d flown a long way. Out over the rich downlands that spread from the forest-clad slopes of the valley walls.
This was good bouncer country, but she rarely ventured this far from her aerie because there were also apes here. Apes that wore animal skin and were, if anything, even more pitiless than eagles. They carried bows and slings, and her people had learned to keep clear of the flocks of white four-legged things, even during their birthing season when it was so tempting to swoop down and snatch up a newborn.
She switched direction as she drifted nearer to the settled parts and turned her back on the large structure that squatted on the landscape. It was a kind of nest for the apes, and legend had it that, sometimes, things flew out of there that no eagle would wish to meet in flight. Things with fur, leathery wings and fangs.
Shaking her head to clear out the ancestral memory, she dropped further and swooped above the meadows. They were flat and ordered into regular shapes, and she kept her distance until the tended fields gave way to the downs themselves. A country of gentle rolling hills, grass and those accursedly tempting white, bleating meat-sacks.
And then she saw them. In a wide dell, five mounds. They looked as though they’d been built in mockery of the bigger hills around the edge of the downs, but to her they seemed to have been simply dropped in place, as if by some huge bird with an unfortunate digestive complaint.
Eagle legends spoke of the apes burying their leaders beneath those mounds. Some in shaped trees. It made no sense to her — why bury good meat? Or bad meat? She seemed to remember warnings to stay away, but she didn’t know why. They were just bumps in the landscape, and she could see bouncer holes in their sides. Good hunting.
Without another thought, she swooped, targeting the largest mound, silently scything through the air, her eyes locking onto the white bobbing backsides of those idiot bouncers.
She thought of nothing else. Her brood, Reggie and even the threat of the apes disappeared. Her mind was like a dagger, raised and ready to kill.
They hadn’t seen her! Soon she would rip and slice and feed! Then, when she had satisfied herself, she would take some scraps to the others. Probably.
The wind rushed past as the thrill of the chase overcame her.
“Come to me.”
What was that? Rip, slice, feed!
“Only a little closer. Come.”
And she realised, with sudden terror, that her tunnel vision, which centered on the bouncers that moved, totally unaware of her, had blinded her to what else was there.
Black in the bright sunlight, more perceived than seen, sucking her toward it like a great, engulfing mouth. She swerved away.
For a moment, as she existed in both worlds at once, she saw it, a talon reaching up to grab her and, with a screech, it had her.
Reggie watched his mate suddenly disappear as she swooped on the bouncers. From this distance, even his eyes couldn’t make out what had happened. Probably one of the apes had hidden himself away and shot her.
He didn’t feel sad — he was an eagle, after all. For a moment, he watched, just to make sure she didn’t reappear, and then he considered his options. The brood would need feeding as soon as they hatched. Did he have time to go hunting?
A crack, and a sharp pain in his backside provided the answer.
“Bugger,” he said.
This is Alice. No, not that one. Our Alice is not pale, she’s not seven and she doesn’t make a habit of talking with rabbits or queens. Not yet, anyway.
Our Alice is twelve and her skin is a sort of light brown. And when she talks, it’s generally to herself, because, in her experience, that’s the best way to have an intelligent conversation.
There she is, laying the fire in the baron’s sitting room, as invisible in the pre-dawn as she is silent. It seems ridiculous to her, but Mr Majestic had explained that having the hearths made as if by magic avoided any chance of the family having to consider that someone had got up hours before them.
Mr Majestic? It would take too long to describe him, so, for now, just imagine an old man wearing a coat of many colours. Faded colours. With holes in. He calls himself a traveller, but has settled down to tend the gardens of Thornycroft Manor and is Alice’s best friend. In fact, apart from Tilly, her fellow skivvy, he’s her only friend.
Watch as she gets to her feet and double checks that the candle on the mantelpiece has enough life in it to last until the housemaid comes in to light the kindling Alice has expertly set.
She’s good at fires.
This might be important later in the story.
Sneaking to the door, she glances around, just to be sure she hasn’t left anything behind, then pulls it gently open and glides along the corridor to the next room on her list, the baron’s daughter’s.
She doesn’t like it in here. It stinks, for one thing. Lady Xtra’s perfume collection is legendary, or so Alice has been told, but the main practical problems are that if she spends too long in here, she gets light headed. And, if she doesn’t open a window, there’s every chance that the housemaid, Flo, will combust when she brings a candle in to light the fire. Most of the time, Alice considered this would be a bad thing. Because, most of the time, she’s quite nice.
Finished upstairs, Alice makes her way down the back stairs, into the kitchen and back to the past tense.
“Did you light all the fires?”
“Yes, Mrs Apron.”
“Right, well you can get on with the washing up then.”
“Yes, Mrs Apron.”
Alice began scrubbing, fighting back a yawn. Mrs Apron was the cook and housekeeper. No rest for the wicked was one of her favourite phrases. Alice wondered how evil people found the time to be wicked. She wasn’t that bad, was she? And she barely got a minute to herself.
“At last! Tilly Openshaw, I swear you’re getting worse.”
“Sorry, Mrs Apron.”
Alice smiled. She liked it when Tilly was nearby. Not only was she a friend, but, as the other under-skivvy, she was also another target for the rest of the staff to aim at. Alice had discovered, since arriving at the manor six months ago, that the hierarchy above stairs was nothing compared to that of below. Mr Majestic had told her that people kick downwards. The problem was that Alice and Tilly had no downwards to kick at.
“Girl! ‘Ave you cleaned my boots yet?”
It was the voice of the footman. Alice sighed, but managed to transform her scowl into a smile before she turned around. “Yes, Fabio. They’re in their usual place in the boot rack.”
“Zat is Seenyore Sarcasti to you, girl. ‘Ow many times do I ‘ave to tell you zis?”
Having grown up in an orphanage run by missionaries, Alice was used to dealing with bullies, and Sarcasti was a particularly pathetic example of the breed. He was a lanky young man who, like so many at that age, looked as though he was wearing someone else’s clothes. He hadn’t understood that whatever uniform you’re wearing, you have to believe you belong in it. Otherwise, you just look as though you’re playing dress up.
So, Alice smiled and nodded, then looked down to where a shorter figure waited in Sarcasti’s shadow. “Oh, good morning Mr Hightower,” she said. “Your boots are in the rack, too.”
The under-footman (often referred to as the four footman by the other staff. Behind his back) rewarded her with a grin and muttered “thank you” before heading away.
“I ‘ope you did not put them ‘igh up. ‘e is very small, you know,” Sarcasti said, before following the dwarf out of Alice’s orbit.
She shook her head and returned to her scrubbing. She hadn’t yet worked out whether the footman thought he was being funny or was simply stating the obvious because he liked being cruel. Either way, he needed to work on it if he intended to make a career of being a below stairs snob. At the moment, he was just a spotty monkey in a footman’s uniform.
“Haven’t you girls finished yet? Mr Fry will be in any moment now!” Mrs Apron barked.
Alice tried very hard to stop herself sighing. Fortunately, Tilly, who operated at roughly half Alice’s pace but was more even-tempered, spoke up. “Yes, Mrs Apron,” as she handed the last plate to Alice to put away.
“Well, get out from under my feet!”
The two girls scurried away from the sink and into the brick-lined room next door which was dominated by a long oak table. Most of the other servants had already gathered around it, and none paid the slightest attention to Tilly or Alice as they sat at the far end.
Moments later, a distinctive clip-clap of patent dragon-skin shoes echoed from the open corridor leading from the servant’s dining hall and the butler, Mr Fry, entered.
Before she’d come to the manor, if Alice had been asked to draw a picture of what she imagined a vampire to look like, it would have looked like Mr Fry. He was stick thin, with a large, pale head on a narrow neck. His hair was centre-parted and heavily oiled, but he wore his black suit with all the assurance that his understudy, Sarcasti, lacked.
Everyone stood up as he approached, and then seated themselves when he sat down, the room reverberating to the grinding of wooden chair legs on the stone floor. Alice and Tilly made sure they sat fractionally after everyone else, with Alice’s bottom the absolute final one to land. Tilly was, after all, her superior, and Alice liked the girl well enough to acknowledge it, at least within the privacy of her own head.
“Before we partake of petty dinner,” Fry intoned, “I wish to remind you of the forthcoming event.”
Alice heard Tilly groan. The skivvies had been up since before dawn and both were starving. Up first, fed last and given the least time to eat. Generally, Alice thought it was cute that Tilly moaned about life not being fair. In Alice’s experience, you might as well complain about the sky being blue. Although, in truth, it was blue a lot less often in the north than it was where she’d been born. At least, that was what her memory told her. She could almost feel the warmth on her cheeks.
“Are you listening, girl?”
She snapped awake. “Yes, Mr Fry, sir.”
Everyone was looking at her in the way that crowds gather around scaffolds to watch someone have their head chopped off—glad it isn’t them and eager to keep the eyes of the authorities focused on another target. And Alice made a good target.
Fry’s small eyes narrowed so that the dark circles around them looked as though they spelled “oo”, but he returned to his topic, no doubt making a mental note to make Alice’s life even more miserable later.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “the Count Ereignishorizont will arrive in two days and it is essential that this house fulfils its duties flawlessly. And, in some cases, invisibly.”
His eyes flashed in the direction of Tilly and Alice, passing over Hightower the under-footman on the way.
This was nothing new. Skivvies were expected to be invisible and Fry had never hidden his hostility to non-human members of the household. Fortunately, the butler’s hostility bounced clean off Hightower’s iron will with just a momentary and almost undetectable flicker in the dwarf’s expression, the only sign he’d even noticed. Hightower’s position here was rock solid, if not exactly lofty — something to do with having fought in the baron’s army in some skirmish somewhere. Alice couldn’t remember.
She brought her attention back to Fry as he droned on. She’d heard this speech three times already and knew what her responsibilities were. She was, to be honest, looking forward to the count’s visit. Mainly because it was making the butler nervous and, while that also soured his mood, she couldn’t help enjoying the insecurity of the man who considered himself the master of all that happened below stairs.
He shut up, finally, and allowed them to eat. This involved five minutes of watching the other servants helping themselves before what remained finally made its way to the end of the table. What remained was generally porridge — the scrambled eggs, mushrooms, sausages and thinly sliced bacon having been gobbled up in order of seniority.
But that was okay. Alice liked porridge now. When she’d first been given it at the orphanage, she’d thrown it straight back up, but she’d got used to it. Hot snot, the other kids called it. Mrs Apron, however, made a different class of porridge — because Fry always had a little alongside his bacon, eggs, black pudding and mushrooms — and so Alice tucked in. Of course, being starving will give you an appetite anyway.
The other servants always finished before the two girls, so they’d learned to gobble it down.
“Right, tidy up now. Mr Majestic’s tray is in the oven.”
Alice tried hard not to smile. If the cook ever got wind of the fact that this was the favourite part of Alice’s day, she’d soon put a stop to it. Alice didn’t mind carrying a delicious-smelling cooked breakfast to the garden shed because she knew that Mr Majestic would share it with her, and, later, she would share some with Tilly.
So, as Tilly quickly washed up the plates before heading to their room in the attic, Alice made her wobbly way to the garden.
“Ah, blessed Alice!” came the call from the potting shed.
She spotted the smiling face peering from behind a cracked pane of glass and opened the door. “Good morning, Professor.”
“Is it bacon?” he asked. “And eggs and mushrooms? Is it sausages, and beans, bubble and squeak? Is it delicious, my dear?”
Alice put the tray down on the only corner of the potting bench that wasn’t occupied by seed trays. “I wouldn’t know if it’s delicious or not. There was only porridge left by the time Tilly and me got to eat.”
“That will soon be rectified,” the old man said, putting the tray on his lap. He was sitting on an old milking stool that creaked as he moved. His rainbow coat hung on the opposite wall and he was dressed in his working attire, as he called it — a moleskin waistcoat over dark brown corduroy trousers, finished off with a pair of heavy, muddy boots.
He took a plate out of a drawer and lifted a slice of bacon, half a sausage, a chunk of scrambled eggs and a muddle of mushrooms onto it, then made a smaller second pile to be taken to Tilly. “Catslop, my dear?”
“Oh, yes please!”
Depositing a dollop of the red paste onto the corner of the plate, he handed it to her and returned his attention to his own.
She was about to dig in, when she paused. “Are you sure it’s okay? I mean, I have had porridge, and this is your breakfast, after all. Won’t you be hungry?”
“Me, hungry? No, my dear. A gentleman of the highways knows what true hunger is, and it is not this cornucopia, I can assure you. Besides,” he added with a wink, “a good gardener should never go hungry. Do you know there are still some raspberries to pick, Russell sprouts to harvest and early rhubarb to pull?”
Alice, who was too busy chomping on a sausage to say anything, nodded and tried to look surprised. She knew about the raspberries, of course, because he’d told her. And she knew about the Russell sprouts. She’d listened to his warnings about them, and kept her extra-thick knickers with the safety patch handy if they were on the menu. Wars had been fought over Russell sprouts, Mr Majestic had said, and battles had been won by their use.
“Now then, my dear, what do you have planned for today? Do you have any free time?”
She liked the professor (as he preferred to be called by her), but he seemed to be wilfully ignorant of the regime Mr Fry and Mrs Apron ran below stairs. The only time Alice got to herself was a couple of hours in the middle of the day when she should, really, have been sleeping. But the butler, in particular, seemed to delight in finding things for her to do during that time. Not today, though. Today, he was only thinking about the visit — and, for now, that was a matter for the more senior staff (that is, everyone other than Tilly and Alice).
“I’m not expected back for a while.”
“Ah, good. We shall have a tour, shall we? It is my day for beating the bounds.”
She put down her fork and took the bait. “What’s that, Professor?”
“Oh, it’s an ancient tradition in these parts. You see, the borders of an estate like this, or a farm, or a village, are more a matter of tradition than anything else. So, every now and again, it’s necessary for someone to walk around them, beat on a tree or some other landmark, and attach a sign of ownership to it, such as these small flags.”
He pointed at a pile of black cloth. “That someone is me, and the time is today.”
“How often does this have to be done?”
“Oh, my dear, it’s a matter of complex astrological calculations, but I have observed that it often coincides with bright sunny days like this, when my legs want to go for a long stretch. Come, will you be a bounder too?”