Of Sea and Song – Chanda Hahn

I fought desperately, plunging my enemy into the water. Thrusting back and forth with a vengeance. Sweat beaded across my brow, and I swore under my breath. I knew it was a losing battle. The sun beat down on my arms as I struggled against the strain, and my breathing turned ragged. I was losing and knew my life would soon be forfeit. My arms trembled, my fingers cold and bruised from the burden. Finally, I gave up. My hands released the dress in the suds-filled wash tub. I pulled the garment up to inspect the stain and frowned in frustration when I saw it now marred a greater area. I rubbed it between my knuckles and fought the blemish relentlessly. Running it up and down our washboard did little more than bruise my fingers. “Oh, for the love of food,” I grumbled aloud. “Maeve is going to kill me.” It’s her favorite dress.

I spilled a draught all down the front of it, and I was trying to clean it before she got home. I groaned and flung the garment back into the washbasin, sending a spray of lukewarm water across the ground and startling Hack, our orange tabby. Hack was slumbering in the midday sun. He jumped up when the water sprayed across his fur, hissing at me angrily. “Oh, calm down, Hack,” I chastised. “It’s only water. And it would do you good. I know what you’ve been rolling in.” I wagged my finger at him. Our cat hardly liked anyone other than Mother, Aura and Rhea.

He barely tolerated Maeve and downright hated me. Hack arched his back at being so ruthlessly attacked by the sudsy water. He hissed, showing me his displeasure. “Get over it.” “Mrrreeoowww,” he growled and made way to swat at my leg. “Oh, scat!” I sang a soft note, and a wave of water sloshed out of the basin and completely drenched him. Hack’s ears flung back, and a look of utter confusion donned his feline face. Hack scampered off into the underbrush, his tail flicking my way. Maybe there was a good reason he hated me. I chuckled, unable to contain my mirth, and then it happened.

I snorted. “Oh stars.” I slapped my hand over my mouth to contain the unfeminine noise that fell from my lips. It was my curse. I stood, flung my plaited deep-red hair out of my face, and stretched, surveying my work. There were still baskets of clothes that needed washed that would take me most of the afternoon, plus the actual reason I volunteered to do laundry—to clean Maeve’s dress. I glanced over my shoulder toward the tower. Our home was an old guard tower that had been abandoned and claimed by my mother. Over the years, we added additions that gave us a larger living area and a private workroom for Mother. My sisters and I slept in the cold and drafty tower, but we didn’t mind so much.

For we were sorceresses, trained by Lady Eville, one of the most powerful in the known kingdoms. And as much as the world feared her name, they soon cast that same suspicion upon us, her daughters, although we didn’t share any blood relation. We were all orphans, abandoned. But then we were bartered for and adopted by her. I stared at the path that led into the town of Nihill. Years ago, when Mother first moved here to escape her own past, it was a backward town filled with lowlifes and ruffians. Or as Rhea called them, scummies. But over time, it has built up a few fine establishments and has grown in population despite there being a tower filled with sorceresses a few miles away. Last year, they even elected a mayor. Although, he was just a crooked businessman who lined his own pockets with unfair taxes.

His son, Armon, was even worse. He used his father’s title to bully and steal from anyone he wanted. Aura left for town a few hours ago to get our supplies for the week, and Rhea and Maeve disappeared into the woods. They said it was to take an old woodcutter ointment for his joints. But I suspected by the amount of basil, nettle, and wormwood they gathered that it was to cast a hex on a particular girl in town. One that had tormented each of our few and far between trips with tossed horse dung and vile words. Mother had gone to check in with Rosalie in the Kingdom of Baist. There was much secrecy over the birth of the future princess of two kingdoms. Even we didn’t know her name nor had seen her. She must have had the baby by now.

Which left four mischievous daughters unsupervised and without a leash. With a wry smile, I quietly hummed. The water in the tub swirled one direction and then the other as it listened to my voice. I tossed a handful of soap flakes into the water, and the water quickly filled with suds. I let my magic do most of the work as I hummed a soft lullaby. One I had learned as a child, but not the origins. The swirling tub of water grew more violent as I lost focus, and the washboard slid into the suds. I stopped the tune, and the water listened. It stilled, and the bubbles slowly popped. I reached in for the dress and pulled out a spotless garment.

“Yes.” I ran it through the press and shook it out before hanging it on the line. Magic wasn’t frowned upon in our household. In fact, we practiced spells, draughts and curses every day. But I was only good at water spells. Which was how I ended up with the unfortunate stain on Maeve’s dress. It was a spelled draught gone wrong. But we were told to not practice magic outside where the townspeople could see us, for they did not understand or approve of us, unless they needed something. A sick child, a loved one who needed guidance or a charm, then my family became indispensable to them. I ground my teeth in frustration.

I had just pulled a second dress through the drying press when a searing pain wracked my skull, bringing me to my knees. “Meri!” Aura’s mental cry echoed in my head. The dress fell from my hands into the dirt. I lifted my skirts and took off running. I darted across the wooden bridge and ran down the gravel path into town. My worn shoes pinching my feet, causing me to grit my teeth in pain. My sister’s terror became my own. Her anguish became mine as she shared her fears and emotions with me. Glimpses flashed through my mind, and none of them were good. The flickers of images I was getting from Aura was that she was near the butcher’s shop.

The mental pictures stopped coming. Aura was shielding herself, trying to keep me from seeing and feeling what she was feeling. “No, Aura,” I cried. “Don’t shut me out.” But I didn’t need much more direction. I ran past the first row of houses and didn’t slow until I came to the seedier part of town, where the buildings and shops were derelict and falling apart. Most buildings had faded shutters or missing sections of thatch or shingles on their roofs. The roadside gutters had become a septic waste area, where the poor tossed their garbage and refuse. Even the animals looked sickly and faint from hunger. Three threadbare children playing in the street saw my approach.

They picked up their twine ball and rushed inside their house, calling out for their mother in fear. The fear wasn’t new. I was used to being an outcast, but it still hurt when innocent children avoided me. I burst through the sand-colored butcher shop front doors to be greeted by an empty counter. Dried sausages hung along the rafters, and raw beef lay waiting to be wrapped in paper. Flies buzzed around the uncovered meat, and I covered my mouth from the smell. No one was here or had been for a while. No sound came from the back room, so I left out the front door and ran down the street. “Aura!” I called out, but no one responded, and the road remained empty. An opened window across the way slammed shut, the woman inside shielding her family from me.

As if the villagers knew something bad was coming and cleared out ahead of time. A muffled cry drew my attention and I turned down a blind alley, the entrance almost completely hidden by a hay-filled wagon. At the end of the alley, I saw her. Aura trapped against the brick building with three men looming over her. She tried to step around Clive, a known drunkard, but he was too fast. He grabbed her by the wrist and flung her back against the building. Even from this distance, I heard Aura’s head smack against the brick, her face pinched with pain as she held in her cry. The butcher’s son, Tobias, took a stick and was trying to lift up her dress. When she tried to get away, Clive hit her in the face. I could see a smear of blood across her fair cheek, and rage built within me.

How dare they harm my sister! Tears poured from Aura’s eyes as she struggled to break free. Not from them physically—but mentally. Aura’s gifts led toward empathy. She could feel what those around her felt and at times read people’s thoughts. And it was her attackers’ horrid and ugly thoughts that had my sister paralyzed with fear. Aura was the gentlest of all the daughters of Eville, her magic not offensively strong like Rosalie’s or mine. She hated crowds and going into town for this very reason. But she was useful in getting the best deals, for she knew if a storekeeper was lying. Inwardly, I fumed that I hadn’t gone with her. “Please stop!” Aura dropped her basket to cover her ears, all of her purchases tumbling into the dirt.

The apples rolled into a puddle, and the sack of flour split open and spilled into the gravel. “Make me,” Tobias taunted. He gripped her arm, and I saw Aura wince a second time. He pulled her close and tried to kiss her. Aura’s eyes went wide, and she screamed, clawing at his chest. “Leave her alone!” I yelled. Three sinister heads turned toward me. Aura looked relieved but terrified at my arrival. “Well, looky what we have here,” Armon sneered. He was the biggest and richest of the men.

He had no problem throwing his name around as the mayor’s son and believed himself to be untouchable. “The more, the merrier… and I love redheads. Is it true their kisses are as sweet as strawberries?” I tried not to show my disgust. Instead, I calmed my features and twirled my finger around a stray lock of my hair. “I surely have no idea. Unless someone kisses me and tells me.” I hated that I simpered, but I was only doing what I thought necessary to lure the men closer to me and farther away from Aura. It worked—sort of. Armon and Tobias moved toward me, while Clive still kept one hand on Aura’s elbow. Her face pale, her eyes filled with unshed tears.

I could see her nervousness, and she knew what I was planning. She shook her head ever so softly in warning. But I was never the obedient sister. Her cheek swelled, and I could see the bruise forming under her eye. She tried to wipe away the blood, but it only smeared across her cheek, and now blood coated her white cuff. I held still. Keeping my hands at my side to try to pose as little threat as possible, but I knew my green eyes glittered angrily, revealing my true intentions. “Now, Meri, where’s my kiss?” Armon shoved his hand into his pocket while he leaned forward. His head swung near mine, and I could smell the stench of ale on his breath. I turned my head away in disgust.

His hand shot out of his pocket, and a knife appeared. The tip poked my ribcage carefully. “No tricks. You hear? None of that magic stuff or I’ll skewer you.” He dug the tip of the knife into my rib, and I inhaled as it pierced my skin. Warm blood trickled down my side. Stupid. I’m so stupid. I didn’t expect him to be armed. My eyes flickered toward my sister and her tear-stained face.

Clive held a knife under Aura’s chin, and she stood still as if her life depended on it. My jaw clenched, and my hands balled into fists. Aura’s eyes widened in fear as she read my emotions. She shook her head a second time, letting Clive’s knife slice her chin. Armon gripped the back of my neck and smashed his mouth against mine. I fought his kiss as he fought to claim me. I heard Aura cry out, and I struggled but felt the knife dig farther into my ribs. The pain was searing, but my anger was worse. I bit Armon’s lip, stepped on his toe, and twisted away. His knife sliced into my side through my shirt.

How dare he harm not only my sister but take something from me I had not freely given? When I gathered my breath, I opened my mouth to sing. For it was my gift to sing spells. The sweeter the melody, the stronger the magic. Except. I didn’t sing. I screamed. A powerful blast of air slammed into Armon and sent him spinning head over heels into the wall next to Aura. His head hit the brick with a sickening crack. Clive, startled by my attack, dropped Aura’s arm and stepped away. It was a mistake on his part.

I screamed again, and this time Clive spun in a circle before flying across the alley, knocking Tobias into a barrel. They crumpled in a heap and groaned. I rushed forth to grab Aura as she curled into a ball. Her hands over her ears as if she could stop the barrage of feelings and thoughts that came her way. “Come, Aura. We need to go.” “So much hate,” she whispered. Her eyes watered, and she looked up at me and cried. “They were evil men.” “It’s over.

They’ll think twice about trying to kiss us again.” I grabbed her hands and helped pull her up. “Kiss?” Aura blinked in surprise. “No, that is not what they had planned for us. It was much worse. They were going to—” “Hush now,” I scolded, interrupting her. “Don’t let their darkness consume you.” I wrapped my arm around Aura, and we stepped around the groaning bodies of Clive and Tobias. “If you could block out their thoughts, you might have been able to defend yourself,” I chastised softly. I slowed and tried to not look at the still form of Armon.

I covered Aura’s eyes to shield her from what I hoped was nothing more than an unconscious man. But when we stepped over his leg, I glanced back at the unnatural angle of his head, the blood that trickled from the corner of his mouth, and I knew. He would never harm another woman again. I could feel the magic in the earth recoil from me when I had taken a life. As if I wronged the balance of power. The rejection hurt. I gritted my teeth and quickly ushered Aura home to the safety of the tower and the protection of our other sisters. I prayed what I had done would not bring down vengeance upon our house. I would soon learn. It would not be so.

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