This story is by Eileen Natale and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cherlina clutched her basket as she set off from the stone cottage where she lived with her mother. She was to take the woodland path to her Aunt Linetta’s cottage and bring back some fresh rolls and deliver a pot of turnip soup that mother made the previous night. It was a brisk morning and Cherlina pulled her woolen cloak in close to keep the wind from chilling her delicate frame. She began singing her festival piece, “All Roads Lead Home” as she walked along the fern-lined path. Her voice cracked and as much as she tried, she could not reach the highest notes.
“I must keep trying.,” Cherlina said aloud as she restarted her piece.
“Yes, you must!” a deep voice bellowed from behind her.
Cherlina spun around to see the singing master, Duncan. His dark eyes looked gravely down at her. “You will never sing as well as your mother if you do not practice more.”
“I am trying,” Cherlina blurted out, knowing what Duncan said was true.
Winning the singing contest at the King’s annual festival was vital to her family and the entire village.
“The king’s festival is two days hence and we must have a winner from Moringale.” Duncan bellowed.
King Morvan taxes were oppressive, claiming half of all crops and livestock. When his subjects begged for relief, he invented a singing contest as the King adores music. The village that sends the winning singer pays no taxes that year and the singer is awarded a large bag of gold.
“Your ancestors, including your fair mother, have saved Moringale for centuries and have always given the singer’s purse to the poor. Foolish generosity, to be sure. But now, the burden falls on you. As you know, the king only allows singers under their twentieth year. We have not triumphed since your mother competed. My son Henrick sings well, but he is unlikely to take the first prize.”
Cherlina’s heart raced at the mention of Henrick, who had been her true love since they were children, singing together in choir.
“With your bloodline, you are our only hope.,” Duncan warned as he turned to go.
Cherlina looked mournful and shivered as she continued her journey.
Cherlina heard beautiful singing as she approached Aunt Linnetta’s stone cottage. The big wooden door opened slowly with a melodious creak that complemented Auntie’s high notes. “Come in my darling,” Auntie sang out. Cherlina could smell lavender as she entered the cozy cottage and was delighted the rolls were lavender, not fennel. She handed her aunt the pot of soup and followed her into the bright kitchen. A mother deer and her young fawn were at the back window, munching happily at the flowers in the window box.
“The flowers!” Cherlina exclaimed.
“It is all well, darling.,” Auntie said.
“The deer are my most attentive audience. I planted those flowers for them. I do not begrudge them a small meal when they delight me so.”
Aunt Linetta poured Cherlina a steaming cup of nettle tea and set down a hot lavender roll.
“I will come to you and your mother tonight. It is a full moon, and we will need to prepare a potion in the moonlight. You will join us.”
“May I?” Cherlina asked in surprise. She had never been invited to help with potions before.
“Yes. You are sixteen and it is time to learn the family arts.”
Cherlina ate her lavender roll with relish, before thanking her aunt and leaving for home.
When she arrived, mother was singing gloriously as she assembled herbs on the wooden workbench in their kitchen.
“Is it true?” Cherlina asked.
Mother nodded and stopped singing. “Yes. You are to join us tonight.”
Cherlina spun around in joy and tried singing her festival piece. The song had heart in it, but the notes were off, and her voice strained. Mother tried not to cringe.
The day flew by with Cherlina helping mother prepare for the night’s work.
Auntie arrived just after sunset. They gathered around the cauldron in the woods behind the cottage. Cherlina carried water and wood, and Auntie lit the firewood as mother added the herbs. The cauldron boiled just as the full moon illuminated the sky. Auntie and mother began chanting, their voices rising higher and higher, filling the woods around them. Cherlina did not join in the song, fearing she would ruin it. Mother and Auntie raised their voices and clasped hands up toward the moon and then came down fiercely ending the song. “It is ready.” Mother declared as she handed a bowl of potion to her daughter. “Allow it to cool, then drink every drop.”
Cherlina finished and showed them the empty bowl.
“Let us sing your festival piece.”
“Please, not now, mother,” Cherlina implored. “I don’t want to ruin this night.”
Cherlina obeyed and was shocked as her voice came out strong and clear. The notes from her own voice kept pace and then exceeded the heights and quality of her aunt and mother. Cherlina could not believe her ears. She could sing well, better than well. She was spectacular.
After the song, Cherlina hugged her mother and aunt and thanked them for helping her sing like them. Cherlina now knew her family’s secret and finally felt like she belonged. As the trio began cleaning up, they heard some rustling in the woods. Looking up, they saw a shadow. Aunt Linetta chased after the shadow but after a few moments, Auntie returned, breathless. “I could not catch up. But I did see a figure of a man. He looked like Master Duncan, but I cannot be sure.”
As she dressed for the King’s festival, the following day, Cherlina was surprised to see the dismay in her mother’s face. “What is the matter?”
“Perhaps it is nothing. But I believe some of our potion was snatched away last night.”
“Is that a great harm, mother? Should it not be shared with others?”
“You know we are a generous family, giving away whatever we do not need for ourselves, but in the wrong hands, the singing potion can cause great harm. It only works on women of our bloodline. For other women, it does nothing, but if a man drinks it, he will sing beautifully from sunrise until midnight, but then he will be stricken fully mute.”
Festival day came and thirteen contestants from ten towns were presented to the king. In turn, each sang beautifully, but nothing like what Cherlina knew she could do with the help from her family’s legacy. Cherlina was second to last, followed by Master Duncan’s son, Henrick. Henrick was taller than his father with eyes that were kind, rather than cruel. Henrick held Cherlina’s hand as they waited and was surprised to see the worry in her face. Cherlina knew she would win the contest and Henrick would disappoint his father. Cherlina knew how cruel Master Duncan could be when disappointed.
When Cherlina’s turn came, she sang her piece with such astonishing beauty, that all believed she was the clear winner.
Henrick cheered loudly for Cherlina before mounting the podium for his song. His choice was a country favorite, “The Flock Flies Home.” He began low and slow, but then built to a crescendo, that sent the king into raptures.
Cherlina searched the audience for her mother’s eyes and saw the fear that she herself felt in her breast.
The King stepped forward and pronounced the winner. “Henrick of Moringale!”
Henrick accepted his awards but then sought his beloved Cherlina to try and explain that his father had forced him to take a magic potion that he found in the woods.
But Cherlina was already with her mother and aunt asking, “What shall we do? Henrick will go mute by midnight!”
“Let us hurry!” Aunt Linnetta exclaimed. “I think we can concoct an antidote. But Henrick must drink it before midnight.
Following Aunt Linetta’s instructions, they hurriedly boiled the antidote, ran to Duncan’s cottage, and implored Duncan to give the potion to his son.
“You are jealous! You are trying to take his talent away!”
“No,” Cherlina begged, “We want to save his voice!”
Sadly, there was no reasoning with Duncan and the next day, Henrick woke up completely mute.
Seeing the truth, Duncan begged mother for the potion. “Please help my son.”
“I fear it may be too late, but here it is,” she said mournfully.
It was many days before Cherlina saw Henrick again, walking down the fern-lined path that led to her cottage. Henrick smiled shyly, took her hands in his and croaked out a gravelly “Hello.”
Cherlina was so delighted that Henrick was not mute, she jumped for joy and wrapped her arms around him.
Henrick’s voice never improved, but he had a voice and that was something. In the days and years to follow, he would become part of Cherlina’s family, joining their singing, croaking out some deep beats as a counterpoint to their soaring harmonies.