Witch Fall

By: Amber Argyle
A Witch Song Companion Novel

Chapter 1

Lilette left the island like she came into it, amid a wave of suffering and death. ~Jolin

Lilette pointed her hands above her head and leapt off the cliff. Eyes closed, she reveled in the feel of falling. She sliced through the cool water at the base of the waterfall, kicking until she reached the rocky bottom.

There, she paused. Everything looked different down here. The water caught the sharp sunlight, bending it into slanting shafts of turquoise. The figures of the other girls on the bank were wavering and insubstantial—as if they were mere reflections instead of flesh and blood. It was like looking at the outside world through a mirror. But which side was real, and which was the reflection?

Lilette wished she didn’t have to go back, that she could stretch this moment beneath the cool water into forever. But her lungs began to ache for air.

I will escape my fate, she promised herself. It had taken her nearly two weeks to gather enough sleeping herbs to drug Bian’s family. Tonight, two days before her wedding, she would slip the herbs into the evening meal. After everyone was sound asleep, she’d gather her supplies and slip away.

Lilette’s toes pushed off the rocks. She swam upward and broke the surface to take a gasping breath.

Pan stood at the rim of the cliffs, her arms folded over her chest. “Come on, Li. The others want to head back soon.”

Her words had a hard, biting edge that made Lilette inwardly cringe. She gazed downstream and felt a sudden urge to just swim away and slip into the jungle, evading Bian and his sons while gathering enough supplies to survive the week-long journey at sea. After that, she would have to steal a boat, and then it was merely a matter of navigating by starlight.

Simple, really.

“You think he sent us here alone?” Pan said as if guessing Lilette’s thoughts.

Of course not, Lilette mused bitterly. After her last escape attempt, he’d had her guarded day and night.

“I’ll call for them if I need to,” Pan went on, her voice flat.

Lilette hadn’t just lost Salfe that night. She’d lost her only other friend too, for Pan had made it clear she would never forgive Lilette for causing her brother’s banishment.

“Come on,” Pan said. “I need to practice fixing your hair.”

Lilette let the weight of her body pull her under again and swam to the edge of the pool. She pulled herself out of the water, her bare legs flashing pale as her hands and feet found the crevices to haul her up the cliffs.

At the top, Pan was waiting for her. “This is how things are for a woman, Li. With Fa dead, the village lord decides who you marry. If you’d just accept it, you could be happy.”

Lilette winced at the mention of Fa’s name. The sun hadn’t even set on the day of her surrogate father’s death before the village lord had announced she would be marrying him. “If you really believe I could be happy with Bian, you don’t know me at all.”

“He never shouts at my mother or my aunties,” Pan replied as if speaking to a small child. “And he plays with his daughters almost as much as his sons.”

Lilette knew better. She’d been born into a world where women ruled because they were the ones with magic. But that was oceans and a lifetime away from the Harshen islands.

She pushed the rising fury deep into her belly. In the darkness following her parents’ deaths, Pan had sat beside her, bringing her pink iridescent shells and combing her hair. Over the years, as Lilette longed to go home to her older sister, Pan had coaxed her out of the hut and down to this very pool.

Lilette thought she had locked her heart safely away. But if that was true, why did Pan’s coldness and Salfe’s banishment hurt so much?

The water had turned Pan’s normally frizzy dark hair into gorgeous curls. Lilette hesitated, then reached out and tugged one, a sad smile on her lips as the curl sprang back up. “We’ll never get to come swimming anymore.”

Pan batted her hand away. “Not everything changes just because you’re a wife.”

“Everything changes.” Lilette gazed into the jeweled tones of the water, hoping to see a different future reflecting back at her.

Pan seemed to soften. “Is it so very bad, marrying my father?”

Lilette’s hands curled into fists. She wasn’t going to marry Bian. By the Creators, she was escaping tonight. She would make it back to her homeland and the sister who was waiting for her. Afraid her eyes might betray her, she avoided Pan’s gaze and took a deep breath. She’d have a better chance at freedom if Pan dropped her guard. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not so bad.”

Lilette pulled on the tunic and loose trousers Bian had given her. She allowed a very small part of herself to enjoy the finery. The tunic hung to the middle of her calves, with a side slit that reached to her upper thigh. She tied the pleated silk sash around her waist and pinned a jade brooch to the front of it. Unlike her homespun cotton clothes, which had knots and bumps from her hand spindle, this was silk, so soft it was like wearing tensile oil. Both robe and tunic were a rich blue. Lilette hadn’t worn color since she’d washed up on the island eight years ago. She and Fa had never been able to afford dyed cotton—let alone silk.

She’d forgotten what it felt like to wear something that didn’t rub sores under her arms. She ran her hands down the length of her stomach, remembering the closets of fine clothes she’d once had. As usual, she forced away the memories of her previous life, surprised that any of them still surfaced.

She slipped on her new, finely tooled sandals. Pan’s sigh held an undercurrent of envy. “He was so generous with your bride price.”

No one seemed to care that Bian was old enough to be Lilette’s father, that he already had three wives and dozens of children. All that mattered was that he’d showered her with fabulous clothes, brooches, and winking rings—all of which only made his wives hate her. The fact that Lilette didn’t want the gifts or the attention only seemed to make them hate her more.

Pan looked Lilette up and down. She reached out, stopping just shy of touching the fine silk before withdrawing her hand. “Sit down.”

Lilette sat gingerly on a large rock Pan had draped with palm leaves to protect her clothing. She studied the other girls, Pan’s younger sisters. All seven of them were chatting happily as they plaited flowers in each other’s hair. They all looked very much alike with their darker skin, curling black hair, and laughing, almond-shaped eyes—very different from Lilette’s golden skin, pale hair, and brilliant turquoise eyes.

Pan’s quick fingers worked rich-smelling oils into Lilette’s hair before tugging a little more roughly than necessary at the knots with the comb. “You’re hair is so thin,” Pan complained as she bound Lilette’s hair into complicated rolls and poufs. She placed three white orchids, the symbol of fertility, behind her ear. Lilette brushed her fingertips along the petals, resisting the urge to rip the flowers from her hair.

Pan’s next younger sister knelt behind Pan and watched them shyly. “Sing for us, Auntie,” she said.

Lilette held back a wince at being called Auntie. She studied the cluster of girls who would be her stepdaughters if she failed to escape tonight. She imagined Bian’s dark eyes watching her, possessing her, and she shuddered.

Lilette took a deep breath and sang one of Fa’s songs.