Chantress Alchemy
2015 Cover


Chantress Alchemy
2014 Cover

Chantress Alchemy





“You are an alchemist; make gold of that.”

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)



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“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)










Chapter One

A Song From The Sea


One more spell, that’s all I meant to sing. One more song-spell, and then I’d go home.

I blew on my icy fingers and faced the wintery sea. I’d been out for hours, honing my magic, and the sun had long since vanished behind sullen clouds. My boots were damp from the froth of the ocean, my cheeks wet with its salty spray. The wind sawed along my very bones. I thought with longing of the snug cottage I shared with Norrie and the soup that would no doubt be simmering on the fire. Something easy to finish on, I promised myself. Something that won’t go wrong.

Clutching my woolen cape, I tilted my ear toward the ocean and its tangle of watery music. A simple song-spell, that’s all I needed...

But what was that sound? That distant humming?

Forgetting my frozen hands and feet, I listened, perplexed.

No one knew better than I that the ocean could sing a thousand songs: music to cradle me, music to drown me, music to call up waves and tides and storms. I was a Chantress, after all. Yet this wasn’t a tune I had heard before. Indeed, its faint thrum was quite unlike any melody I knew. That alone was disturbing.

“Lucy!”

A woolen bundle clumped toward me: Norrie in her winter wraps. The wind snatched at her hood and cap, and her silver hair stood out like dandelion fluff around her wrinkled face.

“You’ve been out here too long,” she called. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”

I was about to reply when I heard it again: a disquieting drone in the midst of the sea’s other songs.

Norrie marched up to my side, her gait uneven. “Lucy, are you listening to me?”

“Yes,” I said quickly. “Of course I am.” But I was listening to the humming, too. If I concentrated hard enough, I usually could make out at least the gist of the sea’s songs. Of all elements, water was the easiest for me to understand. Yet these notes held fast to their secrets.

“There’s no of course about it.” Norrie scrutinized my face. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” Norrie might be my guardian, but I hated to worry her, especially when I had no clear idea what the trouble was.

She wouldn’t be able to hear the song anyway; only a Chantress could do that. “You shouldn’t be out here, Norrie. Not on such a bitter day.”

“Maybe not, but what else can I do when you won’t come home?” Norrie said.

The elusive drone was fading now. I swung back toward the sea, trying to catch its last echoes.

Norrie kept after me. “You’ve been out here since dawn, Lucy. You need to come home now.”

The drone was gone. What did it mean? “Just one more song, Norrie—”

“That’s what you always say. And then you stay out, working till all hours, in all weathers—”

“But that’s why we’re here,” I reminded her. “So I can work.”

Nine months ago, I had freed England from a terrible enchantment, and as a reward King Henry the Ninth had offered me any gift in his possession. To my alarm, he’d talked of building me a palace. What I’d asked for instead was a secret refuge by the sea.

The King, bless him, had abandoned his palace scheme. Norrie and I now lived on a remote part of his estates in Norfolk, in a cottage just big enough for two. Almost no one in the kingdom knew where we were, and the King made sure we were left alone. Although his gamekeepers patrolled the outer limits of the estate, we never saw them. Every month we had supplies of food and fuel delivered to us, and occasionally the King’s messenger came by. But that was all.

“Working’s one thing. Toiling till you’re skin and bone is another.” The wind chafed Norrie’s cheeks, turning them red. “You’re seventeen and nearly grown, so I’ve tried to bite my tongue. But you’re getting worse and worse, Lucy. We came here so you could rest, too. You’ve forgotten that part.”

“I can’t rest yet. Not until I’ve learned more magic.”

“But you already know so much,” Norrie protested.

“I know hardly anything.”

“You knew enough to put an end to Scargrave and those horrible Shadowgrims,” Norrie countered.

“At a cost. Don’t you remember how bad it was when we came here? I had nothing. Not one single song.” My hand went to my heart, where a bloodred stone nestled underneath my woolen scarves. The stone had once allowed me to work the safe songspells of Proven Magic, but in battling against Scargrave and the Shadowgrims I had shattered its powers. Now the only enchantments open to me were the dangerous ones of Wild Magic.

A fraught path—and I had no one to teach me the way. Among Chantresses, Wild Magic was almost a lost art. Even before Scargrave had worked to destroy my kind, very few could have instructed me in it. Now there was no one. I was the only Chantress still living.

To guide me, I had only a letter my mother had written before her death years ago. Although it was replete with wise advice, it was not nearly as long or as detailed as I needed. Most of the time, I had to rely on my own instincts.

“Yes, that was a bad time,” Norrie agreed. “But look at all you’ve learned since then. You can make the waves come when you call. You can sing water up from the ground. Heavens, child, you can even make it rain when you want to.”

“Only for a minute or two, and only—”

Norrie rolled on, ignoring me. “That’s more magic than most of us can dream of.”

“It’s not enough.”

Norrie looked unconvinced.

How could I explain matters more clearly? My magic made Norrie nervous, so we rarely talked about it, but I could see I’d have to spell things out now.

“I’m good with water, yes—but not with anything else. I can kindle a flame, but I can’t keep it burning. I almost never hear music from stones or earth or wind. I’m no good at making plants grow. Even the sea’s songs don’t always make sense to me. And when they don’t make sense, they’re dangerous. If I sing them, I could do harm to others. I could harm myself.”

My cape snapped in the wind, and I stopped.

Norrie laid a mittened hand on mine. “Child, I know there are dangers, and of course I’m concerned about you. But I’m not sure you make yourself any safer by practicing till you’re worn to a thread.” She gripped my fingers through the wool. “Scargrave’s gone now, Lucy. You’ve won the war. Yet you’re still driving yourself as hard as you did when he was alive. Why not take things a bit easier?”

“And what if I have to defend myself? What do I do then?”

“Why should you need to defend yourself?” Norrie said. “The King would have the head of anyone who hurt you.”

It was true: King Henry had sworn that the old days of Chantress hunting were over. Nevertheless I lived in terror that those days would begin again—and that I would not be ready. Night after night I dreamed hunters were coming after me, only to wake up alone in the dark loft, heart shuddering.

I was pushing myself too hard, that’s what Norrie would say. But she was wrong. My nightmares didn’t come from working too hard, but from the terrible truth of my situation. The Chantress line is almost dead. We are hunted; we are prey. So my godmother Lady Helaine had warned me before her own untimely end. To be a Chantress was to face enemies, for the world feared women with power.

“I’m glad the King wants to protect me,” I told Norrie, “but I need to know I can protect myself. And my magic is too weak for that. It has too many holes. So I need to keep working. I need to make myself strong.”

Norrie looked at me with a compassion that tightened my throat. “Oh, Lucy. You’re strong already. Much stronger than you think. Can’t you see?”

“But—”

She waved me away. “Let’s not argue about it now. You’re turning blue, and I’m not much better. Come home, and we’ll talk about it in front of the fire.”

I’m not cold, I wanted to say. But it wasn’t true. And Norrie’s lips were pinched as if she were in pain. She’s been out here too long, I thought with concern. Her back and hips had been bothering her lately, especially on cold, damp days like this one.

“All right.” I pulled up my hood. “We’ll go home.”

We had only just started trudging up the shore when a sharp gust of wind swirled around us. It blew my hood back, and I heard the ocean humming again in its troubling new way. Had it been quiet all this time? Or had I just been too wrapped up in my wrangle with Norrie to hear it?

Hoping she wouldn’t notice, I trained my attention on the drone, trying to understand it. With patience, I could usually unravel the basic meaning of a song, even if I couldn’t fathom all its subtleties.

This time, though, the tune wouldn’t yield. More, I pleaded.

As if to deny me, the strange song twisted in on itself and coiled into nothingness. But just before it vanished, I heard the meaning at the heart of it:

Danger.

The word slipped into my head as if the song itself had placed it there. I felt my unease grow.

“Wait here,” I said to Norrie. “I’m just going up to the bluff to have a look around.”

Before she could object, I ran up the steep bank that rose directly behind us. Reaching the crest, I looked up and down the coast, then out to the watery horizon. I saw no warships, no fishing boats, no vessels of any kind. Nothing met my eye but the endless wind-churned waves of the sea.

I turned my head in the other direction, to the rolling hills that sheltered our cottage, and the stretch of the King’s wood beyond them. All was well.

And then, out by the wood, something moved.

A deer? No. A rider. And more behind him.

I sank behind the bluff’s waving grasses and watched them emerge from the wood, one after the other. Half a regiment of mounted men, clad in armor and bearing spears.

Armed men, coming here in such great company?

Holding my breath, I shielded my eyes with a rigid hand as I looked out. They were riding straight for our cottage, the tips of
their spears sharp against the gray sky.

Danger, the sea had said. Was this what it meant?

I skidded back down the bluff. “Norrie, quick! We need to run.”




Chapter Two

Hunted


“Run?” Hunched against the wind, Norrie turned startled eyes on me. “Why?”

“Armed men,” I gasped. “Coming after us.”

Her hand flew to her heart. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. And I’ve had another warning, too ... a song from the sea...” There was no quick way to explain. Instead, I grabbed her hand. “Come. We’d better run.”

“Where?”

“To the high cliffs.” They were only a little way down the shore, and their tumbled rocks and shallow clefts would shield us from view. “I may need to work some magic, too. But I want us hidden before I start.”

Accepting this, Norrie followed my lead, but her run soon slowed to a hobble. We were nowhere near the cliffs when the sea shrieked at my back. Turning, I saw two riders and their mounts picking their way down the track that led to the shore—and to us.

We needed to take cover. I pulled Norrie with me behind the only shelter available: a mass of spars and driftwood, not yet swept
out by the tides.

Too late. They had seen us. One soldier sounded his horn, another raised his spear.

My mouth went dry. Chantress hunters.

“Lucy,” Norrie quavered, “should we try to get to the caves?”

“No.” Even the closest cliffs were too far away. “We’ll make our stand here.”

Only my magic could save us now. But to work it, I knew I must quiet my terror. Magic might be in my Chantress blood, but casting a song-spell required all my attention. It couldn’t be accomplished through rote recitation, for Wild Magic, like nature itself, was never quite the same twice. The time of day, the weather, the direction of the wind, even the emotions inside me: all of these subtly affected the song I needed to sing. And if I missed those subtleties—whether through carelessness or panic—the magic could go terribly wrong.

I bent my ears to the sea’s songs. Yet the more I told myself to keep calm, the more fear barraged me. I had schooled myself for a moment such as this, but practice was one thing, a real battle another. And even in practice, it was easy to make mistakes.

The horn blasted again, distracting me. More and more riders were gathering on the shore. Were they about to charge?

Listen, I told myself. Forget everything else and listen.

Despite the blood pounding in my ears, I could hear songs shimmering in the sea. The most insistent one promised a great wave to knock them down. Tempting music indeed. But could I control such a potent song? Did I have enough experience?

Doubting my strength, I fell back on a tune I’d sung before, one that often lingered along these coasts, a blurred melody of mist and fog. It was a weaker magic than the song for calling up waves, but I was sure—almost sure—it was in my grasp. As the men galloped toward us, hooves thudding on sand, I started to sing. The salty air thickened between us.

A shout went up from the riders, and they checked their horses.

Pressing my advantage, I let the song swell in my throat and grow stronger. What Norrie made of this as she shivered beside me, I don’t know. Eerie was a word she’d once used about my singing. Unearthly. Fair gives me the chills.

Yet if my singing was unearthly, the sea mist I conjured up was real. Wet and gray as sodden wool, it was impossible to see through. By the time the last phrases poured out of me, it covered the riders completely.

Inside the clammy cloud, armor clanged and horses whinnied. Men shouted in blind panic.

“Help!”

“Halt!”

“Chantress magic! God save us!”

It was a strong spell; I could tell that much. With luck, we could get well away before it faded.

But in my triumph, I hung on too long to the final note of the song. The fog kept billowing out, and though I stopped the moment I realized what was happening, an instant later it swamped Norrie and me. I almost choked in dismay. We were as blinded as the soldiers were now—which was no rescue at all.

“Lucy?” Norrie’s voice was soft and afraid.

“Here.” I groped for her hand.

Before I could find it, however, a voice shouted out from the fog. “Chantress, put an end to this magic! We come in peace, in the King’s name.”

I was not at all reassured. Who knew if the man was speaking the truth?

“My lady Chantress, I beg of you: Listen.” Another man spoke this time, and his voice sounded familiar. Was it Rowan Knollys, head of the King’s guard?

I bit my lip. If it really was Knollys, then perhaps we were safe after all.

“King Henry sent us here.” Yes, it was unmistakably Knollys who spoke. “I promise on my sacred honor: no harm will come to you. We carry his ring as a sign.”

I let out my breath. The ring was a token the King and I had devised beforehand, so that I would know whom to trust. Perhaps it was time to sing the mist down.

Remembering those spears, however, I decided to take precautions.

“Put down your weapons,” I called out.

A slight pause.

“Must we, sir?” a shaky voice asked.

“Yes,” Knollys ordered. “Drop them to the ground, men. Spears and swords both.”

Through the fog, I heard swords sliding from scabbards and armaments thudding on the sand.

“There, Chantress,” said Knollys. “We’ve done as you asked. Now sing us out of this blasted fog of yours, before every last bit of our armor rusts.”

I stifled a laugh. That was Knollys, all right.

“Give me a moment,” I called back. I breathed in the mist, letting its music circle around me until I was certain I had the song I needed. Closing my eyes, I sang it out loud.

It was a complex song, one that drew on the water’s own longing to return to the sea, but I could tell I had chosen the right strain. The foggy air thinned and streamed into the ocean. I saw Norrie first, and moved to her side so that I could protect her if need be. Then, in the swirling gloom, more faces: Knollys foremost among them, his battle-scarred cheeks rough and red under his helmet, his chestnut mustache bristling. Behind him, his men sat in disarray on their horses, regarding me with a mix of wonder and terror.

One look at their awed faces told me I had the upper hand here. I could afford to let the mist go completely. I sang one last phrase to finish my work, careful this time not to linger at the end. The air cleared.

“Thank you, my lady.” Knollys dismounted his bay charger and came toward me, bearing the ring. “I must say, we hoped for a better reception.”

“You would have done better to come without so many men and arms, then.” I nodded at the spears and swords scattered on the sand. “All that, for me?”

He shook his head. “Say, rather, for your safety and ours. It is a dangerous time.”

“You were aiming those spears at me.”

“I am sorry, my lady. The King is anxious for your welfare, and we had orders not only to find you, but to capture anyone we found here who was behaving in a suspicious manner.” The red of his cheeks deepened. “I’m afraid we did not recognize you until you started singing.”

Knollys’s embarrassed gaze made me flush too. The last time he and his men had seen me, I’d been at court, attired in silken robes fit for a queen, and my hair had been elegantly coiffed. Now I was wearing my oldest clothes, water-stained at the hem and darned where they’d snagged on riftwood—and my hair had sprung free from its coil, its black tangles whipping on the wind.

No wonder they’d failed to recognize me.

But really, what did it matter? I was here to work, not to be a figure of fashion. Given the choice between a new song-spell and new skirts, I’d pick the song-spell any day.

“The ring, my lady.” Knollys offered the gold circle to me.

Forgetting about my appearance, I held the ring up to the light, the better to see the rose etched in its amethyst stone. No doubt about it: This was the King’s ring. I showed it to Norrie, who was still looking askance at the scattered horses and the men dismounting to collect their swords and spears.

“I still don’t understand why you’re here,” I said to Knollys.

“I am here because the King wishes to see you,” Knollys said.

“Pack your belongings as quickly as you can. We must leave within the hour.”




Chapter Three

The King's Command


I felt the blood drain from my face. “You intend to take us to London?”

“To Greenwich Palace, rather,” Knollys said. “The King has held court there since Christmas.”

I knew nothing about Greenwich Palace except that it was a few miles outside London, but if the Court was gathered there, then it was the last place I wanted to be. After Scargrave’s downfall ast year, I had spent a few weeks at the King’s side, and I had been shocked by the naked ambition of his courtiers. Half of them seemed to hate me—and most of the others had been desperate for me to do magic for them. To make matters worse, my magic had been at its lowest ebb then. To be so powerless, and to have to hide it, had been the stuff of nightmares.

Since then, I’d heard that there had been changes at Court, that some of the King’s old advisers had been cast off, and that new men had risen in their place. But still ...

I can’t face them. Not yet. Not now. Not until I’m certain I have the power to deal with them. “I regret that I must refuse,” I said to Knollys. “Please tell the King I appreciate his invitation, but I shall remain here.”

Knollys’s stance changed, and I saw why he was regarded as a fearsome leader of men. “My lady Chantress, you misunderstand. This is not a request. It is a direct command from your King.” His flinty voice brooked no dissent. “I am to bring you back with me, and you will attend His Majesty at Greenwich.”

So much for thinking I was safe with Knollys! I would have summoned up another mist then, if only I could have been sure of it. I was tired, though, and cold to my marrow, and I was not certain I could pull off such a song twice. And if I lost myself in the fog again, what then?

Perhaps the wish showed in my face, however, for Knollys’s next words were more conciliatory. “My lady, the King does not act for idle reasons. He wishes you to come in part so that he may safeguard you. As I have said, these are dangerous times.

Enemies are working against King Henry, and they may target you as well.”

Norrie and I exchanged glances of surprise and alarm. I remembered the sea’s song of danger. Was this what it meant?

Not Knollys and his men ... but something even more daunting?

“Who are these enemies?” I asked.

When Knollys didn’t immediately answer, Norrie said, “Have there been more riots?”

Riots? This was news to me. “Who’s rioting?”

“Didn’t you hear what the King’s men said when they last delivered our supplies, Lucy?” Norrie said. “Bread’s more than twice the price it was last year, and wheat’s in short supply everywhere. There’ve been riots in some places.”

I vaguely remembered the delivery, but not the conversation. My mind had been on my magic the whole time they’d been talking. “Is that why you’re here?” I asked Knollys.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Knollys said. “The King himself will explain when he sees you.”

Behind him the men were regrouping.

“We must leave right away,” Knollys urged. “If we hurry, we can reach the King’s hunting lodge at Letheringham by nightfall. After that, I judge it will take us four days to reach Greenwich.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the gray curve of the sea beyond the bluff. Whatever Knollys said, this place felt safe to me. It was the world beyond—including the Court at Greenwich—that felt
dangerous.

But perhaps that was just an illusion.

Certainly Norrie seemed to think it was. Close at my side, she murmured, “Lucy, I know you don’t want to go. But I really think we must. We’ll be safer with the King.”

I bit my lip. How could I stay if it meant exposing Norrie to attack?

And there was the King to consider too. It was through his grace and favor that I had been granted this refuge. When it came down to it, I could ill afford to displease him. And I genuinely wanted to help him if I could. Henry was only a couple of years older than I was, and in the brief time I’d known him he’d struck me as determined and brave, with a keen sense of honor. Saddled with the task of setting the kingdom to rights, he was intent on doing his duty. If he was in danger, I ought to help him, both for his sake and the country’s.

Next to that, how much did it matter that the very notion of Greenwich Palace filled me with dread?

I turned to Knollys, the frozen wind thrashing at my cape. “Will I be able to return here?”

“As soon as the danger is over,” Knollys assured me. “The King gives you his word.”

That was something. And I supposed it was something, too, that I’d managed to sing up the sea mist under pressure and disarm the King’s men.

You’re stronger than you think, Norrie had said. Perhaps I was more prepared to face the world of court intrigue than I’d feared.

“My lady,” Knollys said. “We await your answer.”

“Very well,” I said. “We will go with you to the King.”



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