The sun never shined in Adaria. That was the common saying, but of course, it wasn’t true. The sun shined on Mae’s home as much as anywhere else in Gelardia. She supposed there were more shadows in her land than others as most of the area was covered in dense trees. Trees that produced fruit and nuts to feed the rest of the kingdom. Trees that grew tall and strong and provided good wood for homes, shops, and barns in all lands.
Mae looked out her bedroom window and smiled slightly as the sun peeked out of a cloud. It looked to be a nice day for a fall in Adaria and a perfect day to celebrate the end of harvest time. Thinking she might for once be in a light mood, something within reminded her why she lived in such dread. Her stomach churched as she moved her fingers around, feeling them tingle.
She watched the wind shake the trees outside her window, and she wanted to play with it so badly. She wished she could wave her hand and make it move to her will. She reached out her hand towards the window as she heard the door open, and the young woman who assisted her walked into the room.
“You are up early,” said Enid as she laid a dark red dress on the bed.
Mae put her hand down and flexed her fingers. She needed to control herself, push down her curse deep within herself. Turning to Enid, she managed a smile. “It is a big day, and I need to be down to the orchards directly after breakfast,” said Mae as she sat down at her vanity. “Aurulia knows it will take you long enough to do something with this hair and stuff me in whatever dress you have brought.”
Enid laughed. “There is no need to invoke the name of the goddess. It will take little effort on my part. I’m thinking something simple for today since you will be in the orchards all morning, and your mother sent a dress she said would be very comfortable as well as presentable when your uncle and the other priests come.”
Mae sighed. “I doubt my mother and I have the same ideas of comfort, but I am sure it will be manageable no matter what it is. Go on, Enid, do your best.”
Mae sat as still as she could as Enid braided her hair with a red ribbon to match her dress, pulling it up, so it rested on top of her head. She stood so Enid could clothe her, and she was surprised that her dress was not too tight or heavy.
“Is this new?” asked Mae, surprised.
Enid nodded. “Your mother had it done for the season. I believe she had many gowns made for you. She sat me down and had a chat with me, saying you would be out in public much in the future here and in nearby lands.”
Mae looked at the back of her dress in the mirror. “I thought perhaps I would have one more year before mother paraded me around the young men, but I suppose the quicker I am gone, the sooner she can stop worrying about me.”
Enid adjusted the shoulders of Mae’s dress. “Your mother cares for you very much, my lady. I am sure whatever her actions, she is only thinking of your future.”
Mae nodded. “I know you are right. I can’t imagine how much fear she lives in with me under her roof.”
Enid walked in front of her and took her hand. “I believe the only fear she faces is in losing you. She only wants you safe and settled.”
Mae wondered for the millionth time why the goddess Aurulia had cursed her. “I need to eat so I can be on my way. The wagons will be leaving at any time.”
“Shall I call for your horse, or even the carriage, my lady?” asked Enid.
Mae shook her head. “It looks to be a pleasant day for once, so I will walk. Mother might want the carriage later when my uncle arrives.”
“Then I believe you are ready, my lady. You look lovely, as always.”
Mae stood up to her full height as she smoothed down her dress. She never fretted much over her looks as there wasn’t anything to think about. She was too tall and wide to be called lovely by anyone. She didn’t think her face or hair was objectionable, but she was much different than the other dainty women of her sphere, including her mother. While she may have inherited her mother’s dark hair and blue eyes, she, unfortunately, was built like her father. He called her sturdy and said she was from good Llewelyn stock.
“I hope you will be able to enjoy some of the day, Enid. I will need some help to dress for the ball tonight, but I can manage to undress myself.”
“There is always some fun to be found downstairs or in the village. I can probably sneak away for a few hours. Do not worry about me, my lady. I find enough amusements in my life.”
Mae grinned. “Such as with the carpenter’s apprentice. How old is Floyd now, nineteen?”
“Almost twenty,” said Enid with a smile of her own, “And about ready to set up his own shop.”
“And perhaps be able to take a wife in a year or so,” said Mae. “I will miss seeing you every day, but it will bring me great joy to see you settled and in love.”
Enid laughed. “You have gone much further with your musing than either he or I have, my lady. I foresee serving you for many years to come.”
“I hope not,” said Mae.
Mae walked from her room and hurried downstairs to the smaller dining parlor. She found her mother sitting at the table, drinking some tea and looking over a letter. Her mother glanced up and smiled, putting her teacup down.
“You look enchanting, Mae. I knew that dress would look well on you, and I like how Enid has done your hair. Perhaps she can do something like it with a bit more flair for the ball tonight.”
Mae sat down next to her mother, marveling at how effortlessly beautiful she always appeared. “I hope you did not spend a great deal of money buying me this dress or any other gowns, mother.”
“Your father left plenty to see you kept up as a lady of this house should be. You haven’t had new things in a few years, and I believe you may have grown a little lately.”
Mae sighed as she poured some tea. “I have to stop at some point.”
“Your father was tall, and so was the former Lady Llewelyn. She was quite commanding, and you remind me much of her.”
“I barely remember grandmother,” said Mae as she put some food on her plate.
“She traveled much after her husband died, and your father started running the house. It helped me not be questioned as the lady of the house, and I appreciated her discretion. She did come back and see us after you were born.” Her mother smiled fully. “The first time she held you, she said you would be a force. I believe she was right.”
Mae rested her head on her hand as she ate a bit of toast. She would much rather live a quiet life that benefitted her land and family than be any kind of force. She hated the unsettled feeling that filled her at all times, making her hands tingle and her legs twitch. Keeping her curse inside of her was difficult, and she had spent night after night praying to the goddess to take it away.
“Will you go straight to the orchard after breakfast?” asked her mother taking Mae out of her thoughts.
“Yes,” said Mae as she sat up. “I hope to be there not too long after the wagons arrive so I can announce the end of the short day and ring the bell. It is tradition, after all.”
“It is, and I am glad you will be the one to do it this year. Perhaps your brother will be old enough to manage it next year. I’d like to wait until he can string more than three words together.”
Mae laughed. “He is barely three, but I do think he is extraordinarily smart. I am sure by next fall that he will be able to say at least a few of the ceremonial words. I will work night and day with him so he can.”
“You always do have better luck with him than me. I will bring him this year. As soon as your uncle arrives, we will make our way over to the orchards.”
Mae nodded and went back to her breakfast. She ate quickly and excused herself. Her mother stood up and took her hand, leaning over to kiss her cheek. “You are a blessing to the house and me. I hope you know how proud your father was of you. I am proud of you as well, Maela.”
“I know, mother. I hope I can continue to make you proud. I know in the past, I have caused you much worry.”
“None of it is your fault, my dear,” said her mother. “You didn’t ask for it; none of us did.”
Mae left the house, throwing on her dark cloak before walking out the door. She stepped out into the cool but partially sunny fall day. She breathed deeply before walking towards the path that would take her past the village out into the orchards. The smell of autumn was all around, dying leaves, damp ground, and crip air. As she walked, she couldn’t help but feel content, surrounded by the familiarity and beauty of her land.
The hills extended in both directions, covered in trees of varying colors. Soon all the yellow, green, and red leaves would fall, and she would be able to see the great river from her room. Adaria may have been known as the least of the lands in her kingdom, but Mae could not imagine a place more beautiful.
“My lady, how fortunate I was able to catch you on your way this morning. Now, I can accompany you to the start of the festival,” said a young man as he appeared out of the tree line.
“Were you watching for me, Felix, and what is with this my lady business?”
“I was walking from my home to the orchard and happened to come upon you, my lady, and when you are dressed so, I cannot help but refer to you formally. You do look rather fetching today.”
Mae rolled her eyes. “And what would Sibill think of you talking so to me?”
“I doubt it would bother her at all since she hasn’t spoken to me in two weeks. I believe she is much engaged with Lord Kavan at the moment,” said Felix with a huff.
“Her mother does have some ideas about that match, but I don’t think you have to worry about it. Whatever happens, I will not be some momentary entertainment for you or a way for you to obtain your lady’s jealousy.”
Felix took her hand and put it on his arm. “I am only being friendly, my lady. You and I have always been great friends.”
“I suppose we have, but I can do without your unnecessary flirtations or any false proclamations of my beauty.”
Felix shook his head. “Why do you assume they are false? You do look very well this morning. Is this a new dress?”
“My mother has had several made for me. I believe she has plans for me to find a connection soon.”
“Surely not,” said Felix as he pulled her a little closer. “You aren’t even eighteen yet. You have plenty of time to find a husband if you wish. There is no reason to force it.”
“You can’t blame my mother for wanting me to be settled soon. She only wants me to be safe. I imagine some lower lord in an out of the way place would do very well,” said Mae quietly.
“Have you had more issues lately? I thought you had it under control,” said Felix as he looked around and spoke softly.
“I have not had to let my magic loose, but I can feel it building up inside of me. My dreams have been strange lately when I do manage to fall asleep.”
“Perhaps in a few days, you and I could ride to the river, and you could release just a bit. I am sure no one would see us out there.”
Mae shook her head. “It is too risky. It is better if I try to bury it deep inside, and maybe, one day, it will disappear altogether. If anyone were to see me and tell the wrong person- Felix, I don’t want to be taken away.”
“I wouldn’t let them. We would run away somewhere deep into the forest, maybe make it to the sea. We could sneak onto a ship and leave the kingdom altogether.”
Mae laughed quietly. “You could never leave your duty behind or Sibill. No matter who she is speaking with at the moment, you know she will choose you in the end.”
“Then I will convince her to go with us. She will not want to lose you either. My brother can take up the lordship.”
“We are speaking of something that will never happen. I will find a way to keep this under control. No one will ever know what I am.”
Felix put his free hand over hers that rested on his arm. “You speak as if you are something unnatural, and I want you to know you are not. You are wonderful, just as you are. It is not your fault you have this ability or even that it is treated such. You are not to blame for the kingdom losing almost all its magic.”
Mae grunted in frustration. “Why do the priests continue to let the Callagans rule? The kingdom has long been hurting under their leadership. Once magic was in everything, and many had the ability. Since they took over the throne, nothing good has happened.”
“You know the answer to your question. Too many in power support them. It would take an act of the goddess to displace them,” answered Felix.
“And all the while, they take advantage of our people and land. They take more than their fair share of our harvest and cut down our trees, leaving our people barely enough to survive. They expect more and more food and wood for the city and the surrounding lands but take no account of how long it takes trees to grow or the toll the work has on the people.
“Did you hear about the Woods? Tom died of his fever two nights ago, and it is not looking good for the baby. My mother sent the village healer last week, but he could do nothing. He said Tom was too weak to fight it off. He is doing all he can for the baby. Poor Susan.”
Felix sighed. “It’s awful. There are tales like it all over the village and beyond, and I am sure it will only get worse with the coming winter. I believe our village has enough food to make it through the season, but I hear closer to the center of Adaria, there is a concern of scarcity.”
“My mother knows and is seeing what can be spared from our harvest after the palace takes their share. Does the king have no love for our people, his people? I know we live the furthest away from his padded throne, but our land is still important.”
“And what do you plan to do about it, Lady Maela Llewelyn? Will you take your cause to the king?”
“I would if I had any authority,” said Mae fiercely, “But the leadership of my family and this land falls to my three-year-old brother. Perhaps I can find a way to marry and settle close by so I can help him. I can take him to the city one day, and we can appear before the king to save our people. Maybe we could form our own forces and go to the city one day. We have more numbers than any other in the land.”
“We do,” agreed Felix, “but they are simple farmers and harvesters who have no wish to fight. They only want a quiet existence doing what they know. They are not warriors, Mae.”
“But the way things are going, what they live for will be taken from them eventually. The king will bleed the land dry, and our people will perish with it. One day, we will have to fight for our way of life, Felix, and I am afraid that time is coming sooner than you think.”
“I will not argue with you as you might be right, but today is not the day to discuss it or think it. You must appear as a calm, beautiful lady of Llewelyn. You look the part, now put on your mask and play the role.”
They walked on to the orchard, entering into the trees to watch their people work for the rest of the morning until Mae would ring the bell and announce the end of the harvest. As they moved through the trees, many greeted them with bows as they carried bowls and sacks of fruit. Mae looked up to see some of the young ones climbing into the trees to make sure they got every single apple, pear, or nut. Mae and Felix laughed together as they walked amongst those working, picking some fruit themselves and placing them in waiting bags and bowls.
Mae bit into an apple as she grinned at something ridiculous Felix said when she heard a scream. She dropped her apple and looked at Felix before picking up her skirts and running in the direction of the noise. The yelling continued, and she stopped when she looked up high at a tall tree to see a young girl dangling from a half-broken branch.
Mae looked at the thick trunk, wondering if she could climb the tree, but knew it would be impossible for her to reach as high as the child even if she made it up to some of the lower branches. She heard the sounds of others running their way as the limb the girl hung from started to separate from the tree. She heard Felix call her name as she continued to look up at the frightened child.
The sounds of those gathering came closer and closer, and the limb completely broke from the tree. Mae didn’t hesitate as something took over her whole being, making her feel as though she was flooded with power. She raised her hands as the magic within her broke free, and the feeling of fire came over her. Everything around her seemed to pause, the child in mid-air with the large branch at her side.
Mae pushed forward her hands, and she could see the energy she released surround the child. Mae lowered her hands, bringing the girl slowly down to the earth, where she landed on her feet, staring up at Mae in a mixture of fear and wonder. Mae stood with her hands out as she stared at the child, realization hitting her at what she had done.
“Mae,” said Felix uncertainly as he gently grabbed her arm.
She turned to look at him when someone else caught her eye. Her mother stood just to her right, holding Mae’s brother in her arms. Next to her was her uncle and two other priests, all staring at her. Her mother looked on the verge of tears. Her uncle slowly shook his head as the other two priests narrowed their eyes and exchanged glances.