Unrequited Sonata

They told Deirdre she was unnatural, a freak. Her family told her she was an embarrassment. It had always been this way. Each time it whittled a tiny piece of her away and each time she wondered if there was enough left to go on.

When Deirdre got the invitation to perform solo at the soundshell, she was sitting on the pier staring out across the bottomless lake with her long fingers tucked tight into her pockets to protect them from the chilly air. She’d been arguing with her brothers all morning. Her father had threatened to cut her inheritance if she didn’t stop bringing her family into disrepute. It was bad enough that she was a female playing percussion; but to be a goblin playing classical music was unforgivable. The silence ricocheted off the still water, just like it had ricocheted around the room that morning.

She could hear the clockwork starling that delivered the message well before it arrived because the whirring of its wings was interrupted by a loud thunk every seven seconds. She watched as the glittering blue metal bird plummeted to the side each time the thunk sounded before valiantly struggling aloft again when its wings kicked back in. There couldn’t have been a more apt analogy for her musical career.

When the defective collection of springs and cogs finally descended towards her perch at the pier, Deirdre had to throw her hand out to catch the poor thing before it plummeted into the lake. The bird’s beak clattered open to deliver its message. Deirdre gently held the bird and inspected its parts to see if she could figure out what was wrong while she listened to the message. 

“Dear Ms. Smigley, We are pleased to inform you that your application for the emerging pianist scholarship to play at the annual Soundshell Symphony has been successful. Please reply within three days to confirm you are still available. Kind Regards, Gregor Quarg Assistant-Director, Society for the Performance of Sound.”

Deirdre’s hands stopped moving and her gaze lifted from the little clockwork bird back to the vista before her. This could be it. This could be the performance that would make all the years of concerts in school halls and dementia homes worthwhile. This was her chance to show her family she wasn’t an embarrassment after all.

The messenger bird started struggling in her hand, trying to return to its sender. Deirdre extended a single silver talon from between her fingers and pulled at a bent spring until it looked a bit straighter. Then she let the little bird go and watched it fly away. Ten seconds later she heard a pop and watched the bird spin into a barrel roll mid-air before carrying on flying. At least it wasn’t losing altitude now. She knew what it was like to keep falling just as you thought you were getting somewhere.

When her family heard the news, they told her it was political correctness gone mad; token diversity for the middle classes. A tiny voice in the back of Deirdre’s mind wondered if that were true. Another whittled piece of self drifted to the floor. Their world was made up of the good and the bad and no-one crossed between. The fae might venture to the punk goblin underground for an exciting night out. The goblins might help elven hunters fend off the dragons that attacked them all. And then they all went back to where they belonged. All except for Deirdre.


Two weeks later, she stood backstage at the Soundshell waiting to perform her solo. The manager’s jaw dropped when she arrived and he checked her ID three times before he let her into the building. If her kind sweated, she would have been soaking wet with nerves. Instead her hair had stiffened to form a solid halo around her head. She had anticipated that might happen and had cut it short for the occasion. Her 8-year-old cousin had mocked her as the locks fell to the bathroom floor. She had bribed him not to tell with a lizard’s tail. The other peoples already thought her kind were only good for punk rock. She didn’t need a nerve-ridden mohawk to reinforce the image.

She ignored the fae and elven stagehands’ sideways glances as they ushered her into the wings. Before she’d had a chance to get her bearings, she was hearing the Director announce her name to the Crowd and then she was stepping out into the blinding stage lights. 

The applause from the crowd petered out as she crossed the stage and they realised what she was, but she didn’t notice. A rushing sound had filled her ears and all she could see was the grand piano standing before her begging to be played. 

She sat down and caressed the keys for a second, careful to keep her talons sheathed. She could feel the piano’s age and the dedication of the young and upcoming piano-maker that had constructed her all those years ago. How fitting that her professional debut was on a piano that had been the first of its distinguished maker’s creations. She doubted any others who played her had even noticed. For all their haughty silence, the fae and elves seldom stopped to feel. Goblins felt vibrations through the earth and through time. Strummed strings and beaten drums filled the air with history that was lost on the ‘good’ peoples. 

All she could see in the bright lights of the stage was the piano before her. She could have been alone. She placed her hands in position and began to play her Composition–– Unrequited Sonata. She had picked the piece because it was quiet, almost fragile. The opposite of what this crowd would expect from Goblin music. Distantly, she heard a small sound of surprise travel through the watching crowd.

She leaned forward into the music as she played, hammers sending shivers through the air as they hit the strings. Her fingers skipped faster and faster across the keys until the sounds from the crowd turned to gasps of delight. She felt her mind carried away on waves of rhythm as her talons started extending and retracting to play extra keys in a way she never had before. The melody split into two and then three new strands, weaving together in impossible complexity. She was a one-goblin piano orchestra.

She realised what was going on about ten seconds before the crowd. She didn’t know whether to curse and rage at a world that seemed determined to crush her dreams or to revel in this moment of virtuosity that would never be repeated. 

When the crowd caught on, their gasps turned to screams. They couldn’t see the dragon yet, but they knew that no goblin could make music so beautiful. A tear splashed down onto the piano as Deirdre surrendered to despair. She was capable of beauty all on her own, but no-one would believe it now. 

High above them, a giant iridescent serpent was circling the Soundshell with sweeping wings. Each of its eyes shot forth invisible streaks of power that fell onto the peoples gathered below. Its blue eye sent a targeted beam of inspiration down to Deirdre at the piano. Its green eye sent a broad spray of enthrallment across Deirdre and the crowd, trapping them in their seats listening. The two strands twisted together around Deirdre’s body, soaking into her skin and driving her hands to play with more and more frenzy. Those who hadn’t run already could no longer break free. 

The dragon dove down into the crowd and picked up its first victim with a crunch of bone. Deirdre’s tears came faster as she listened to the screams. Even if she survived, all that would be remembered was the goblin who thought she could play classical music and enthralled her audience to their deaths instead. Dragons were notorious gluttons and there was no telling how many people this particular dragon could consume in one meal. She couldn’t even tear her eyes from the keys long enough to see how big it was.

As the music continued to tear itself out of her, she became aware of a whirring noise next to her ear that was slightly out of time. She was almost annoyed enough to raise a hand from the keys to swat the distraction away, but the dragon’s power held her hands to their task. The whirring clockwork starling landed on the music stand before her. Now that it was in her field of vision, she could see its head was cocked to the side slightly. Its beak clattering in anxiety.

Deirdre couldn’t stand the bird’s distracting rhythms. “Go away! You’re ruining the music.”

The starling just clattered even louder, punctuating the sounds with confused whistles. 

“The dragon is making my music enthrall the crowd so it can feed,” Deirdre said in answer to the wordless query. 

She hoped the silly bird would leave her alone once it knew what was going on. The starling stopped clacking and whistling for a moment and turned its head to stare at Deirdre with one black eye. Then it launched itself into the air. Deirdre leaned forward again into her playing. She could feel the spaces between her fingers starting to bleed as her talons whirred in and out. She watched the red liquid drip between the keys. 

If she had been able to look away from the piano, she would have stared in amazement at what happened next. The tiny clockwork starling landed on a wall near the dragon who was finishing its appetiser nearby. When the dragon launched itself back into the air, the starling followed. The dragon circled overhead, savouring the anticipation of its meal waiting below. 

The mechanical starling flew the length of the Soundshell away and hovered watching the dragon. Then it launched itself like an arrow through the air. Ten seconds it flew. It was mid-barrel roll as it hit the dragon’s glowing emerald green eye with its sharp steel beak. It wasn’t big enough to cause any real damage, but even dragons don’t like having their eyeball scratched. It blinked back tears as it veered off course and in that moment the crowd below was released from its thrall. They screamed and scattered for the safety of the nearby buildings.

Deirdre sat at the piano still playing. She was no longer enthralled, but the inspiration was still flowing from the dragon’s blue eye and she couldn’t tear herself away. It wasn’t until the dented starling dropped onto the piano’s soundboard with a crack that she finally paused and looked up. She reached out a hand to the starling and watched the blood from her fingers mix with the dragon eye-gunk that had clogged the bird’s mechanics. Its whistles were reduced to gurgling static.

A shadow fell over them both and Deirdre picked up the starling and threw herself to the side just in time to avoid the dragon’s snapping jaws. With her self-preservation instincts finally restored, Deirdre sprinted for the stage wings and the safety of the solid stone walls of the theatre building beyond. 

Deirdre stumbled through the hallways in a haze of confusion. When she came across a restroom, she used it to clean up her hands and the little clockwork bird as best she could. The sticky liquid from the dragon’s eye had started eating away at its metals, leaving them tarnished and rusting. 

The Director found her there cradling the little starling in her hands. She held out a hand to the dazed goblin and pulled her up to her feet. The dragon had abandoned the Soundshell before the military forces could move in to retaliate. He was a lazy dragon, used to feasting on the catatonically enthralled. Chasing prey was not his thing. When the media managed to piece together what had happened, the headlines read Soundshell massacre averted by Goblin’s clockwork kindness. 

Deirdre read the article with a sinking heart. She was a hero, but the article didn’t even mention her piano performance. The few bookings she had following the night at the Soundshell had all been cancelled, as if she might somehow attract another dragon. Her brother had called by to ask if she had finally come to her senses. It went without saying that heroic kindness hadn’t really helped the embarrassment levels of her goblin family. Deirdre’s head drooped forward as she contemplated her future. Maybe it was time to give up the dream. 

The clockwork starling had followed her home and seemed determined to stay. It flew to her shoulder and ran its beak through her hair, pulling several strands out when they caught in its springs. 

She sat down at her piano and placed her fingers gently on the keys. She hadn’t played since the dragon’s attack. She tried to play Unrequited Sonata again. The piece sounded incomplete without the complexity of the extra melodies. She slowed the piece down and extended a talon tentatively towards a key as she played, and then another. It was awkward, but if she angled her fingers just right she could play the extra notes without messing up the main melody. 

Her talons could spread far wider than her normal range, creating new chords as she explored. She played a few bars and then grabbed a pencil to start scrawling notations on the sheet music in front of her. She couldn’t play the way the dragon had made her play, but she could still play in a way that no-one else ever had. Sometimes when you whittle everything else away and you feel dead inside, it is because all that is left is the heartwood ––enduring, resonant, and strong as steel. It is pure potential that can be anything you craft it to be.

Deirdre could feel when her piece was ready for the world, melodies and harmonies weaving together until the heartache she had captured was amplified far beyond the sum of each individual strand. When she auditioned the piece, there was no way the Director could say no to that raw emotion. No way she could deny the tears streaming down her face, or her shaking hands as she booked Deirdre in to play.

When the night of her performance arrived, Deirdre's hair lay flat and calm. She had nothing to prove to herself or anyone else anymore. From the first note, the crowd sat enthralled. There was no question that the beauty of that music was all her own. The rapt audience was silent for long seconds when she raised her hands from the keys. Their thundering applause when it came startled her clockwork bird into flight, making it fly circles around her hair that was now undulating with excitement. 

The next day she hit the headlines again: Goblin Starts Biggest Music Revolution Since Punk Rock. Even her family could be proud of that.

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