Chantress

By: Amy Butler Greenfield

CHAPTER ONE


THE SINGING


I was digging in the garden when I heard it: a strange, wild singing on the wind.

I sat back on my heels, a carrot dropping from my mud-splattered hands.

No one sang here. Not on this island.

Perhaps I’d misheard—

No, there it was again: a lilting line, distant but clear. It lasted hardly longer than a heartbeat, but it left me certain of one thing: It was more than a gull’s cry I’d heard. It was a song.

But who was singing it?

I glanced over my shoulder at Norrie, hunched over a cabbage bed, a gray frizzle poking out from under her linen cap. As far as I knew, she was the only other inhabitant of this lonely Atlantic island, but it couldn’t have been Norrie I had heard. For if there was one rule that my guardian set above all others, it was this one: There must be no singing. Ever.

Sing and the darkness will find you.

We were still dripping from the shipwreck when Norrie first told me this. She had repeated it often since then, but there was no need. The terror in her eyes that first time had silenced me immediately—that and my own grief, so deep I was drowning in it. The sea had taken my mother and had almost taken me. That was enough darkness to last me a lifetime; I had no desire to court more.

Not that I could recall very much about the shipwreck itself. Even the ship that had carried us off from England seven years ago had left no impression on me. Was it stout or shaky, that vessel? Had it foundered on rocks? Had storms broken its masts? I did not know. We had boarded that ship in 1660, when I had been eight years of age. Surely eight was old enough to remember? Yet my only recollections of that night came in broken fragments, slivers that were more sensation than sense. The sopping scratchiness of wet wool against my cheeks. The bitter sea wind snarling my hair into salty whips. The chill of the dark water as I slipped through it.

“Hush, child,” Norrie would say whenever I dared mention any of this. “It was a long time ago, and a terrible night, and you were very young. The least said about it, the better.”

“But my mother—”

“She’s lost to us, lamb, lost to the wind and the waves.” Norrie’s face would always pucker in sadness as she said this, before her voice grew brisk. “It’s just the two of us now, and we must make the best of it.”

When Norrie took that tone, there was no refusing her. So make the best of it we did, and if life on our island was not easy, it was far from desolate.

But we never sang. We never even whistled or hummed. We had no music of any kind. And if anyone had asked me, I would have said I did not miss it at all . . . .

Until now.

It was as if the singing had pierced a hole in me, a hole only it could fill. I sat silent, listening hard. Withered stalks rustled in the warm October sunlight. Gulls shrilled as they swooped toward the bluffs. And then, on the wind, I heard it again, the barest edge of a tune, almost as if the sea itself were singing—

“Lucy!”

I jumped.

From two rows away, Norrie waved her wooden trowel in her gnarled hand. “What’s wrong with you, child? I’ve harvested a whole basket of cabbages in the time it’s taken you to root out three carrots.”

It didn’t matter that I stood half a head taller than Norrie did, or that I thought of myself as nearly grown—she still called me child. But I was too used to it to bristle. Instead, I looked down at my meager takings. If Norrie had heard the music, surely she would have mentioned it. Since she hadn’t, I wasn’t going to. I didn’t care to have her scolding me, yet again, for having too much imagination and not enough sense. Was the singing real? I was almost willing to swear it was . . . but not quite. Not to Norrie.

“Well, Lucy, what is it?” Norrie knocked the dirt from her trowel. “Are you ill?”

“No.” If anyone looked ill, it was Norrie. Every year the harvest was more of a struggle for her. It scared me to see her cheeks so mottled, her stout shoulders drooping. I knew she wouldn’t appreciate my saying so, though.

“You’ve been working since sunrise,” I said instead. “Don’t you think you’ve earned a rest?”

“Rest?” Beneath her rumpled cap, Norrie looked scandalized. “On Allhallows’ Eve? Whatever can you be thinking?”

“I only meant—”

“Back to work now, and no more dawdling, please,” Norrie said, her face anxious. “We need those carrots, every single one, if we’re not to go hungry this winter.”

“I’ll get them all,” I promised, hoping to calm her.

Norrie’s brow relaxed a little, but her back was still tense as she bent over her cabbages again.

I wrapped my hands around a frill of carrot and sighed. Allhallows’ Eve, the thirty-first of October—every year I dreaded this day. For if Norrie was strict as a general rule, on Allhallows’ Eve she was at her absolute worst. From dawn to dusk, she worked us half to death, dragging in the last of the harvest and safeguarding the house against the coming night.

“After sunset,” she would say. “That’s when the true danger comes. The spirits walk, and mischief is in the air. We have to protect ourselves.”

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