Chapter One

1639 Words
The screams from the courtyard drew me to the window. Peering out, I saw my stepsisters tripping over each other in their hurry to get back to the house. Their heels took up clumps of dirt, leaving a trail behind them. I shook my head. A little bluebird perched beside my arm on the sill, watching the chaos below with me. “What do you suppose it was this time?” I asked her. “A snake? Or maybe another frog?” She chirped back at me. I laughed quietly. “They scare so easily.” Reaching out, I pet her head gently with my finger. Her feathers were soft, and her eyes closed as I stroked her. “I envy you.” I sighed. “How I wish I could fly away from here. Far, far away.” Impossible my mind whispered, but I couldn’t help but hope. As if to prove just how unattainable my desire was, the bluebird leaped from the windowsill, dropping ten feet before spreading her wings and flying over the treetops. I sighed, my chin dropping into my hands. Over the trees, further South lay the vast ocean, its incredible shades of blue just visible from my high viewpoint. My keen eyes caught sight of a black silhouette leaping into the air, then crashing back into the depths. A dolphin? Or perhaps it was a Murúch, known as Murrow, the half-fish, half-human dwellers of Ríocht an Aigéin, the ocean kingdom. A sighting of a Murúch was rare; Those who claimed to have seen one told stories of their blue skin and beautiful tails. There were many beautiful creatures in this world, though I’d never come across any. Unwittingly, my eyes cast to the West, to Ríocht na gCrann, where most of the Malartáin lived. If there were few stories about the Murrow, there were even fewer about the Skinchangers. I suppose that could be because one never knew what form they were in; The cat in your backyard could be one, and who would ever know unless they revealed themselves? Then there were the Coimeádaí Draíochta, most referred to as Keepers, who hailed from the North. The local baker, Madeline, was renowned for her delectable treats and sweet bread. I’m sure her magik helped, as it did with her chores. It was always interesting to see her broom sweeping the steps all by itself. Unlike the Murrow and the most of the Skinchangers, Keepers mingled with humans everywhere. Madeline had a joyful personality, always smiling and making jokes. So many kinds of people under one roof; Ríocht an tSolais, The Kingdom of Light. An ironic name, I thought. There was very little ‘light’ in my life anymore. Sighing again, I left my ponderings at the window. Turning to sit at my vanity, I picked up my brush, dragging it through my hair. The locks stretched and pulled with each pass. I brushed until it shone, a golden halo framing my face. I met my gaze in the mirror, examining my reflection. My hair wasn’t very long, like most women, but the shoulder-length style suited me. My eyes were a bright, light blue, framed with long dark lashes. Between them, I had a little button nose and full, pink lips. I was thin, more so than I should have been for my five-foot-six height, and pale. Another flash of pink caught my eye, making me twist my mouth. Grabbing the little glass jar that held my cream, I took a generous amount and applied it over the scar on my neck, making sure it was completely covered. The cream came with a dull itch, but I was so used to it that it was easy to ignore. Besides, it wasn’t as if I could go without it. Stepmother had made that very clear that last time I’d left the house without putting it on. I winced as I recalled the merciless beating I’d received. . . The scar covered most of the right side of my neck and stretched down over my shoulder. I was only required to cover the visible part, as the rest was covered by my clothes. It came with an awful nickname that I despised, due to the way I’d received it. Ashes. The memories came unbidden, as they always did. I bit my lip as I recalled that night six years ago. . . I’d been woken in the middle of the night, disoriented and dizzy. Quickly lighting a candle, I had been shocked to find my room filled a thick, black smoke. Terrified, I’d jumped out of bed, calling for Papa. The air had been putrid, and quickly made my head swim. Dropping to the ground, I crawled to my door, hissing in pain when the doorknob burned my hand. The smoke grew dense, replacing the air in my lungs quickly; I’d been nearly unconscious by the time Papa broke my door down and scooped me up. . . but I remembered vividly when the floorboards in the second-floor hall had given way. One second I’d been in his arms, the next I was being tossed across the floor. “Run Adira! Get out!” Then he was gone. I’d waited for him to come back, to climb out and help me. By then, it was too late; The hem on my nightgown had caught fire, devoured the material, and scorched the skin underneath. Panicked, I’d beaten at the flames, desperately trying to put them out. It was then that the roof had caved. Blinking away the tears, I clasped my hands together. To this day I didn’t know what had landed on me, only remembering the pain as it pinned me to the floor. My skin had burned away in seconds, my blood sizzling as it poured out of me, and I’d blacked out. Later I was told that one of the stable hands had rescued me, seeing my limp form as he escaped with his wife. Almost everyone had escaped that night. Unfortunately, two servants hadn’t. Neither had Papa. I was reminded often that his death was my fault, but they didn’t need to. I knew. I’d been extra weight, extra time. The time he could have spent saving himself. If it hadn’t been for me, he would still be here, and everything would be as it was before. My stepmother wouldn’t hate me. My stepsisters would be kinder. We would still be living like a noble family. Instead, Papa’s will had decreed that if anything should happen to him, his wealth, second only to the King himself, would be transferred to me. And only me. I couldn’t touch any of it until my eighteenth birthday. Which meant my stepmother couldn’t either and that only made her hate me more. Over the course of these six years since her husband’s death, she’d tried everything to get my fortune, to no avail. Before the fire, every material thing she wanted was hers; Papa had no qualms when it came to spending on his new bride and her daughters. We’d had lavish feasts on gold plates, rich furniture, and exotic foods. The servants had waited on us hand and foot- Nothing seemed unreasonable. These days, things were much different. Stepmother hadn’t been able to afford all the servants on her own, so now there were only three left. The rich foods she so loved were also far too expensive and forget about feasts. Everything she’d been forced to give up was a mark against me. Her daughters were just as bad, if not worse. Speaking of. . . two pairs of footsteps clambered outside my door. I lowered my head, closing my eyes. “Three. . . two. . . one. . .” Right on cue, my door burst open, slamming against the wall with a loud bang. Raising my head, I met my oldest stepsister’s furious gaze in the mirror. “Yes, Darnella?” I raised a brow at her. Her round face was a fierce shade of red, standing out against her long black hair. Her dark eyes bore into mine, undisguised hatred leaking out. Beside her, Hannah’s dark red hair was untwisted, falling in strings around her face and neck. She had the same dark eyes as her sister, giving off the same expression. Their gowns were soaked and covered in mud. “How many times?!” She shrilled. “Excuse me?” I turned to face her full-on. “How many times have I told you to fix that damn bridge?” I blinked at her, trying my best to hold in a laugh. That wouldn’t do me any good right now. They must have fallen from the small bridge crossing the creek. . . Again. “Darnella, I already told you. . . I can’t fix the bridge. I don’t know how.” “And I told you that I don’t care! Fixing things around here is your job!” I stood, wiping my hands on my apron. “I will go tell stepmother now. Perhaps she could hire someone in town-“ She cut me off. “No!” She stalked toward me, waving her finger in my face. “Do you know what you’ve done? Do you even realize what today is?” “It’s. . . Sunday?” “George is coming today!” She exploded. “And now my best dress is ruined! You knew, and you did this on purpose! I’m telling Mother!” I gaped at her. “Darnella, please! I will clean your dress before George comes.” “Too late Ashes.” She glared at me. Hannah snickered from the door. “You’re in trouble now.” I gulped as they ran from the room. Trouble was a mild term, I was sure.
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