Authors: Emily Larkin
Tags: #Romance, #Medieval, #Historical, #Fiction
The Fey Quartet # 1
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Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
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Maythorn’s Wish/ Emily Larkin
. -- 1st ed.
is the first in a quartet of novellas that are the prequel to the Baleful Godmother series. This story is where the journey begins! A full list of the books in the series may be found at
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ONCE UPON A TIME
IN THE NORTHERN
reaches of England lay a long and gentle valley, with villages and meadows and wooded hills. Dapple Vale was the valley’s name, and the woods were known as Glade Forest, for many sunlit glades lay within their cool, green reaches. Glade Forest was surrounded by royal forest on all sides, but neither it nor Dapple Vale were on any map, and the Norman king and his foresters and tax collectors and huntsmen knew nothing of their existence.
Within the green, leafy expanse of Glade Forest lay the border with the Faerie realm, where the Fey dwelled. The boundary was invisible to the human eye; nothing marked it but a tingle, a lifting of hair on the back of one’s neck. Wise men turned back when they felt the tingle, and unwise men continued and were never seen again.
Despite its proximity to Faerie—or perhaps because of it—the sun shone more often in Dapple Vale than elsewhere in England and the winters were less harsh. The Great Plague bypassed Dapple Vale, and the Great Famine, too. Crops flourished, animals were fat and sleek, and the vale’s folk were hale and long-lived.
One road led to the vale, but few travelers discovered it. No Romans found Dapple Vale, nor Vikings, and England’s latest invaders, the Normans, hadn’t found it either. Even folk born and bred in the vale had been known to leave and never find their way back, so well hidden was Glade Forest. Shrewd inhabitants took a pebble worn smooth by the clear, sweet waters of the River Dapple with them if they ventured from the vale, to be certain of returning.
Over the centuries, some Christian values crept into the vale, where they mingled with older beliefs, but no friars found their way in to build chapels, and the folk of Dapple Vale still held to most of the old customs. They prayed to many gods, and celebrated the solstices, summer and winter, and the equinoxes and cross-quarter days, and it wasn’t a deity’s wrath they feared most, but that of the Fey.
The folk of Dapple Vale didn’t take their good fortune for granted. They had heard of plagues and famines, heard of marauding soldiers and starving serfs and murderous outlaws. Each was careful to respect the forest that sheltered them, and most careful of all was the Lord Warder of Dapple Vale, who went by the name Dappleward. Dappleward and his sons and his liegemen, the Ironfists, knew the location of rings of standing stones where the Fey had danced in olden times. They knew where to find the great stone barrow that held the grave of a banished Faerie prince, and they knew of the dark and narrow crevice wherein lay a hoard of abandoned Faerie gold. They knew these places, and guarded them carefully.
From time to time, trouble and sickness visited Dapple Vale, but it was never more than its folk could bear. While England suffered beneath the Norman yoke, Dapple Vale quietly prospered. The folk harvested their crops and tended to their animals. They hunted in the woods, and gathered berries and herbs and mushrooms. They wandered close to the border of Faerie—but took care never to cross it. For the Fey were dangerous—tricksy and fickle and cruel—and the folk of Dapple Vale knew better than to attract their attention.
ALL TALES MUST
have a beginning, and our tale begins in Dapple Bend, in the crook of Dapple Vale, where there lived a miller’s son, a tall and handsome young man, with glossy black hair and a bold heart. The miller’s son wanted to see something of the world before settling down to life as Dapple Bend’s miller, so he ventured forth from the vale and in his travels he found himself a scholar’s daughter who was as lovely as a maiden could possibly be. Her hair was the color of spun gold, her lips were as soft and pink as rose petals, and her eyes were the rich blue of cornflowers. The miller’s son brought his young bride back to Dapple Bend, and then set himself to the work of grinding corn and barley.
It was commonly acknowledged that Mistress Miller was the most beautiful girl in Dapple Vale, but not for her golden hair or rosy lips or blue eyes; it was her smile that made her beautiful, for she had a smile that lit her face and gladdened the hearts of all who saw it. The miller’s wife was barely fifteen, but she could read and write and sing as sweetly as a skylark, and for all her beauty and her accomplishments, she was a modest, kind-hearted girl and was loved by all who knew her.
After a year had gone full circle, the miller’s young bride presented him with a daughter. The miller craved a son, but he swallowed his disappointment and told himself that his next child would be a boy. Although he was less cheerful than he’d been before and he drank more often at Dapple Bend’s alehouse, few people noticed. As for Mistress Miller, motherhood suited her; there was joy in her eyes, joy in her step, and when she sang lullabies to her daughter, everyone in Dapple Bend stopped to listen.
Two years passed, and again Mistress Miller presented her husband with a daughter. This time, the miller dealt less well with his disappointment. He spent many evenings in the village alehouse, and when he came home he snarled at his beautiful young wife and took to hitting her. Mistress Miller’s smile lost its joy. She tried not to cringe from her husband, and learned to hide her bruises from the villagers.
The miller’s wife delighted in her second daughter, but she prayed for a son. Two years passed—and she gave birth to another daughter.
The miller took himself off to the deepest ale barrel he could find and when he returned to the millhouse that evening, to his wife and three young daughters, bitterness consumed him. He was bold and handsome—the boldest, handsomest man in Dapple Bend, perhaps all Dapple Vale—and yet his wife had given him only daughters. In a drunken rage he beat his wife with a stool, and when his eldest daughter, not yet four, tried to stop him, he beat her, too, and then he staggered outside and fell in the millpond and drowned.
Widow Miller healed, but she was no longer the most beautiful woman in Dapple Vale. Her nose sat crookedly on her face, and a blow from the stool had blinded one eye and staved in her cheekbone. A full dozen teeth had she lost. Her right hip was broken, leaving her with a shuffling limp. One wrist was crushed, and her hand withered, the fingers curling in on themselves.
The miller’s eldest daughter healed, too, but her knee had been cruelly shattered. Even with the best bone-setting, her leg was weak. She would always need a crutch to walk. She would never run again, never dance.
The miller had made no provision for his young family, but Dapple Bend drew close around his widow. The empty cottage by Bluebell Brook was rethatched, and fresh rushes laid on the floor, and the widow and her daughters had a home. As for food, the cartwright offered Widow Miller a fine nanny goat in exchange for teaching his son to read and write, and the baker’s daughters wished to learn the trick of writing, and the stonemason’s twins, too; so in time Dapple Bend came to have the most literate population in the vale, in perhaps all of England, and two of the sheep that grazed on the village common and half a dozen goats and a noisy flock of hens and a beehive belonged to the widow.
The seasons passed, year followed year, and Widow Miller’s daughters grew to be the most beautiful young women in Dapple Vale.
Thus begins our story . . .
MAYTHORN, THE WIDOW
Miller, shuffled through the forest. Her basket bumped against her hip with each limping step. A stream chuckled and burbled close by.
You will find fresh mint along my banks,
the water seemed to murmur.
And sweet thyme
The stream hadn’t taken exactly this course the last time she’d been so deep in the woods, and it wouldn’t the next time, but Widow Miller had roamed the forest for too many years to be disturbed by signs that the border with Faerie lay near. And she knew that the chuckling water spoke truly: she would find fresh herbs along its banks.
She turned her steps towards the stream, peering into the shadows with her one good eye, and on the grassy banks, she spied a patch of thyme.
The widow knelt painfully, awkwardly. “Thank you,” she told the stream, and “Thank you,” she told the thyme, and carefully she plucked a dozen stems and laid them in the basket and heaved herself to her feet.
A song thrush poured its heart out on a nearby branch. The widow listened for a moment. When she looked back at the stream, it had gathered itself into a pond.
The widow didn’t draw her shawl around herself and hobble home as fast as her crippled leg could carry her. She smiled a faint, ironic smile and set off around the pond. These woods were safer than any woods in England. Trees and mossy stones and sunlit glades might rearrange themselves between one blink of an eye and the next, but no outlaws roamed here, nor king’s men, nor bloodthirsty beasts.
A patch of tender-leaved mint caught her eye, and alongside it, comfrey. By the time she’d worked her way around the pond, the widow’s basket was full. “Thank you,” she told the pond, and sunlight flickered across the water, as if the pond smiled at her.
The widow caught a glimpse of her reflection—the ruined face, the withered left hand hanging at her side—and turned away. Behind her there was a moment of silence and stillness, and then a low, musical burbling. She glanced back. The stream had returned, but now it flowed in the opposite direction.
Widow Miller turned her steps homeward. The stream lay along her path for the first half mile, chuckling and murmuring. “Thank you for your company,” she told it when they parted ways, because it was always best to be polite, even to streams, when one was near the border with Faerie.
Without the stream alongside her, other noises filled her ears. She heard leaves rustling in the breeze, the twitter of birdsong, twigs snapping beneath her feet . . . and a sound like a lost kitten wailing, faint and high-pitched.
The widow cocked her head and listened.