I heard the mist before I saw it, a shimmering tune that crept in with the dawn. Rising, I wrapped my mud-stained cloak around me and went to the cracked window. Sure enough, the mid-September sunrise was veiled by wreaths of fog. From the sound of it, it would burn off within the hour—which was just as well, given what we needed to do today.
I turned back to the room. Though it was tiny and dilapidated, its roof hadn’t leaked in last night’s hard rain, and its mattress had been softer than most. I’d slept well—perhaps too well, for I’d been dreaming when the mist song had woken me, dreaming of Nat. Awake now in this shabby room, I suffered the loss of him all over again.
A gruff call came from the other side of the door. “Chantress?”
I was always called Chantress these days, never Lucy. But if the greeting was formal, the grizzled voice was nevertheless one I knew well. It belonged to Rowan Knollys, former leader of the King’s guard, now the trustworthy captain of my own men. I shook my head free of troublesome dreams and lifted the latch.
As always, Knollys’s ruddy face gave little away. Only his voice betrayed any sign of strain. “Time we were off.”
“I’ll meet you outside.” I shoved my belongings into my bag, swallowed a quick breakfast of cheese and day-old bread, then made my way down the rickety inn staircase to the stable yard outside.
Most of my men were already there, checking their muskets and saddling their mounts. After more than a year in their company, I knew their moods almost as well as my own. As I strode over to my horse, I could feel tension in the air, as real and thick as the mist. Everyone was all too aware of what lay before us.
Our newest recruit, Barrington, waved at the mist, wide-eyed. “Did you sing that up, Chantress?”
“No,” I said. “It came on its own.”
Barrington nodded, but I could tell he was disappointed. This was his first journey with us. Unwilling to miss anything, he kept hopeful eyes on me always, even if I was only eating my dinner. Evidently he’d been expecting more magic than he’d gotten so far.
Knollys clapped him on the back. “Never mind, boy. If Lord Charlton doesn’t surrender, I warrant you’ll hear plenty of Chantress singing before the day’s out. Now get on your horse.”
That morning’s ride pushed me to my limits. Constant practice had made me a skilled horsewoman, but today we were driving ourselves hard. As the mist rose and the footing became clearer, we raced through fields and woods alike.
I had just begun to worry that perhaps we’d lost our way, when Knollys swerved right, going uphill through the woods. Moments later we saw what had brought us here: the wall.
Higher than a man’s head, it ran as far as the eye could see, a line of tight-packed gray stone imprisoning a forest of ash and oak. It had been built to intimidate, and even viewed from horseback it was a daunting sight.
I sidled my mare next to it, listening for what I could get, which wasn’t much. Stones never wanted to sing to me. But there had been heavy rains this week, so the wall was damp, and water was something I understood. I could hear it humming in the gaps and on the wet surface of the stones themselves.
“So this is Charlton’s new park,” one of the soldiers said behind me.
“Part of it, anyway,” Knollys said. “He’s taken the best pasture and meadowlands, too, and a long stretch of the river. The village is in a dire state.”
It was an old story, repeated time and again in England: Powerful lords fenced in common lands and called them their own, depriving villagers of their time-honored rights. No longer able to graze a cow or catch eels or cull deadwood for fires, poor villagers starved and froze.
Determined to put an end to these landgrabs, King Henry had outlawed the practice of enclosure a year and a half ago. But Lord Charlton was a great power in this county. He’d continued to build his wall regardless—partly in stone, partly in timber—and he’d repeatedly refused to take it down.
Our assignment was to demolish the wall, by whatever means necessary. First, however, we were supposed to give Charlton one last chance to take it down himself. The King had no desire to appear a tyrant. He had impressed upon us that Charlton must be given every possible opportunity to set matters right.
In most cases, my arrival would have ensured compliance; usually the mere sight of me made rebellious lords crumble. Yet my men and I had doubts about Charlton. Hot-tempered and arrogant, he was reputed to have scoffed at my magic, saying the stories about me were exaggerated. He’d threatened to shoot the next royal messenger on sight.
“Let’s approach the castle and see what kind of reception we get,” Knollys said. “If you’re ready, Chantress?”
I nodded, and we moved off.
Soon we reached the half-abandoned village of Upper Charlton, which lay within sight of the new wall. Nervous faces appeared at the windows as we marched, and a subdued cheer went up when they saw the royal colors, and again when they saw me at the center of a score of soldiers in tight formation. The cheers grew louder as we passed through the village and started up the hill that led to Charlton Castle.
I’d seen the maps and read the reports. Charlton was a redoubtable castle, well-positioned and well-fortified, with a particularly massive gatehouse. The walls of the enclosure led right up to this gatehouse, so that the gate controlled access not only to the castle but to all the land that Charlton had claimed. The front of the gatehouse was further guarded by a half-moat, fed by the local river. Inside, the castle was blessed again by water. A deep well in its keep had allowed it to withstand many a siege. Listening hard as we approached, I could hear both the moat’s vigilant melody and the faint, sulky song of the well water.
“Halt!” Knollys cried out. We were only halfway up the hill, still out of musket range, but the gray walls of the gatehouse seemed to tower over us. The gates remained shut, the drawbridge up. There was no sign of welcome.
Knollys picked one of the men to serve as emissary—young Barrington, eager for action—and sent him toward the castle on foot, bearing a white flag to show he was there to parley, not attack.
As soon as Barrington came into range, Lord Charlton’s men fired from the gatehouse. A bullet caught the boy just below his helmet; he fell to the ground. Even back where we were, we could see the blood.
“Chantress?” Knollys said, but there was no need. Still in the saddle, I was already singing, honing my anger to a fine edge that worked for me and not against me.
Unrestrained emotion could make a song-spell veer in dangerous ways, yet I needed to maintain a certain flexibility. I didn’t command the elements so much as charm and persuade them, and I had to work with the melodies I could hear in the world around me. These changed with the day and the season and the weather and a hundred other factors, so my magic was always a matter of improvisation. I never sang the same song twice.
What suited my purposes now was the sulky tune I’d heard coming from the bottom of the castle well. There was restlessness there, and resentment. I had only to play on these for a few moments before the water shot up, splintering the well cover and spouting into the sky. As it jetted upward, I felt a fierce pleasure—partly an echo of the water’s own relief at being set free, and partly the intoxication of the singing itself, and the power in it.
Yet pleasure too could be a distraction. I needed to focus on the job at hand. Working quickly, I sang some of the fine spray into the castle weaponry and gunpowder, wetting them so they could not fire.
If Charlton’s men had put up a flag of truce, that would have been the end of it. But when I finished my song, arrows flew from the windows, landing within a foot of Barrington and the men who had gone to his rescue.
“Get back,” I shouted to them. “All of you, get as far back as you can!”
Clamping down on my anger, I turned my attention to the water in the moat. Vigilant it might be, but it was frustrated as well—always on the edge of things, forever locked out. I harped on those notes in my own music, until the moat water rose up as vapor, drenching the walls of the gatehouse. Feeling again a fierce thrill in the singing, I worked the vapor deep into the mortar. Within moments, the mortar softened, and the gatehouse suddenly took on the appearance of a sandcastle in the rain. The foundations bulged. Walls sagged. The parapet collapsed.
I held on just long enough to give Charlton’s men a decent chance to flee. Then, with another burst of song, I turned the mortar to liquid. The entire gatehouse peeled away from the castle and rumbled down the hill, a roaring landslide of slick stones and mud. When it stopped, all you could smell was earth, and all you could hear was silence. And then, in the silence, moaning.
Was that Barrington? Or had my landslide taken some of Charlton’s men with it? My throat tightened, and the brief pleasure I’d found in the singing disappeared. Even after more than a year of this work, I found some of its consequences hard to handle.
They wanted to kill you, I reminded myself. And your men.
With the gatehouse fallen, the castle was wide open to the world. Moving closer to it, Knollys bellowed, “Surrender now, or the Chantress will sing again.”
Men appeared at the wide gap in the castle wall, hands over their heads. They watched me as rabbits watch a snake. After divesting them of any remaining weapons, my men tied them up.
“It’s treason to shoot at the King’s forces,” Knollys told them. “But if you cause no more trouble, and if you tell us where to find Lord Charlton, your lives may be spared.”
This was our usual policy—if we were overly harsh, it might provoke more rebellion—but most of our current captives were too petrified to speak. A few, however, were eager to take Knollys up on his bargain and told us where we might find Charlton. As the hunt began, my men moved into the castle, leaving only a handful of us outside, including the guard by Barrington. At my request, Knollys set some of Charlton’s men to checking for survivors in the landslide.
“I think you can take care of the rest of the wall now,” Knollys said to me as we both dismounted. “We’ve waited long enough for it to come down. I’ll go inside and take charge of the castle.”
I nodded offhandedly, not wanting to let on what a challenge the rest of the wall presented. But a challenge it most certainly was. As we’d seen for ourselves, Charlton’s enclosure went on for miles. It was by far the biggest wall I’d ever had to bring down.
At least there was no one shooting arrows now. I could take what time I needed. Listening to the world around me, I chose my songs carefully. First, a song to draw water up from the ground and into the wall, and then another to call a wind down from the chilly sky.
Wind was something I was still learning to work with. No matter how sweetly or imperiously I sang, it would not always do my bidding; sometimes it ignored me completely. But today my luck was in. If anything, the wind responded rather too strongly. I had to weave a tight net of song around it as I soaked the wall, then froze and melted it again and again. Only at the very end did I set the wind free. With a burst of explosive joy, it drove the stones and timbers apart, demolishing the wall all down the line.
A kindred spark of joy lit up in me. I’d done it. I’d taken the wall down.
“Chantress!” A call from my men.
As I turned, a wave of weariness hit me. Great magic was always draining. Yet if I’d learned anything as a Chantress, it was that I couldn’t afford to show any weakness. Certainly I’d have been a fool to betray any vulnerability now, when my men were dragging Charlton out to me, his velvet-clad arms tied behind his back. Above his cravat, his face was apoplectic, and he was cursing the men with every step.
“Save your breath, Charlton!” I called out. “You’re my prisoner now, and the King’s, and you’re bound for the Tower. And it will go better for you if you show some remorse.”
If there was any remorse in Charlton, he hid it well. As the men shoved him forward, he spat at my feet. “You hellhound!”
I blinked. Was he too furious to care what I might do to him? Or was he deliberately trying to goad me into doing something rash?
“She-devil!” From the crazed look of his eyes, it was fury alone that drove him. “The King will rue the day he allied himself with you. You suck men dry, you harpy! Even the ones on your own side.”
“Take him away,” I said to four of my men.
Charlton kept spouting filth as they grabbed him. “But they’re growing wise to you, aren’t they? You’re a witch, they say. You’re a freak. No man will touch you. Even Nat Walbrook’s abandoned you—”
“And shut him up,” I ordered, more harshly this time.
Words, I told myself. Just words. They can’t hurt me. But even after Charlton had been hauled off, I found myself shaking with anger. How dare he speak that way to me? How dare he mention Nat?
I looked up at my men. Not all of them met my eyes. Although I thought of us as a unit, the truth was that they always kept a certain distance from me. I was a woman and a Chantress; like it or not, that set me apart. When all was said and done, what did they think of me? Had Charlton’s words struck some kind of chord in them?
You’re a freak. No man will touch you. Even Nat Walbrook’s abandoned you—
What could I say in my own defense? I couldn’t tell anyone the truth about Nat. Indeed, after all this time, I was no longer sure what the truth really was. And to address any of the rest of Charlton’s accusations was to give them more credence than they deserved.
Never mind, I told myself. You are strong enough to handle this. And I was. But as I stood looking at my men in the shadow of our victory, my loneliness went bone deep.