There is a great darkness coming…Maya woke with a start, gasping, shivering in the early morning air despite the thick cotton nightgown she wore. The words that seemed so important in her dream tumbled in the air above her head and fell back into the silence of sleep, forgotten.
Maya swung her legs out of the wool blanket and gingerly touched her bare feet to the freezing dirt floor, hissing at the cold. Blusters of wind chuffed and puffed around her window, buffeting the wooden shutters.
She could smell the damp ozone of coming rain, the spirit of a storm gathering on the horizon. She grinned in the dim early morning light. Distant thunder rumbled.
Maya walked to her window and threw open the shutters despite the cold. Deep purple clouds were rolling in, causing her to be equal measures thrilled and frightened of the prospect of a good storm.
She watched as the wind picked up, thrashing the tall pine trees that towered over their small cottage. Some storms caused the roof to leak and the floors to be muddy in places and icky for days but oh the rapture of a fire-split sky! The lightening was less impressive presently with minor flashes across the belly of the clouds. Rain began to spit down on her upturned face and with a shiver she closed the shutters again, wiping her cheeks with the sleeve of her nightgown.
Maya sat back down on the bed tiredly, wishing she could crawl back under the covers. They’d been up late the night before celebrating Michaelmas, a ‘quarter’ day, a taxes-due day, the edging in of winter.
A firm hand grasped Maya’s shoulder, startling her. “Goddess, Gram, you scared me.”
She sat down on the bed beside Maya. “Goddess had nothing to do with the plum wine you drank last night.”
Maya grinned sheepishly. “It was only one mug – and Alban and I shared it.” In truth, it was two mugs, and they hadn’t shared at all, but Gram didn’t need to know everything.
“There is change happening here, I can smell it on the wind, with the rain. Changes for us, certainly for Golten. I want you here, where it’s safe today and the rest of the week.”
Maya, too, felt something in the air but while Gram was worried, she was feeling edgy, hopeful, and restless. “I did have a bad dream,” Maya admitted.
“Oh? What of?”
“I can’t remember. It felt…urgent. Something about a darkness? It didn’t make any sense. Seems silly to even mention now that I’m awake.”
Gram folded her hands on her lap, looking thoughtful. “There’s been some sickness going about in the village. I assumed it was the usual fevers that pass this time of year but maybe…Florence died last night; do you remember her?” Maya touched Gram’s arm with a gasp. “Of course, the milliner’s mother. I’m so sorry, Gram. She was younger than you.”
Gram nodded. “I thought maybe she wasn’t as strong as we all thought. She had strange symptoms with the fever, bumps here, and here,” Gram pointed under her arm and on the inside of her upper thigh. “And the tips of her fingers, her nose and lips turned black.”
“Horrible. Was she in pain?”
“Yes, until I helped her along with it.”
Maya nodded. She gave her a quick hug and stood. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, Gram, you always do.”
“Let’s hope I won’t have to, if I never see that again it will be too soon.”
Maya began to get dressed, pulling off her loose, long-sleeved cotton nightdress and tossing it on the bed. She and Gram hardly ever got sick. She smiled as Gram stood and absentmindedly folded her nightgown back in her wooden chest at the foot of her bed.
Maya splashed cold water on her face from the delicately painted yellow and blue clay bowl Gram had placed there the night before. She finished quickly and pulled on her gray under-hose and gray short-sleeved shift. It smelled strongly of the lavender soap they used to wash their clothes in the river, but she could smell the hard wetness of river rock, and the faintest scent of algae.
Shivering in the cold morning air, she layered on a long-sleeved blue cotton tunic. It was her favorite one; Gram had painstakingly embroidered tiny silver roses along the sleeves, neckline and the hem. The neckline was square and accentuated Maya’s long neck and wide shoulders. It was too fancy for school but Gram didn’t seem to mind.
Maya began to separate her thick black hair into braids in front of her mirror. With quick, deft movements of her long brown fingers, she took just enough oil to ease the hair into place while she braided two braids on the right side, two on the left and as was her custom on school days, she wrapped the braids together into a low, tight bun against the nape of her neck. Not one hair out of place.
When she was satisfied, she turned to face Gram who had sat back down on the bed to watch her morning routine. She was looking older this morning, her white hair dull in the gloomy morning light, her pale face seemed to be floating above her muted green dress. Her eyebrows knit together in a frown, but her mouth tilted up in a smile. “Well, whatever comes will come whether we worry about it or no. You are growing more beautiful every day.”
Maya had her father to thank for her warm chestnut skin, her deep brown eyes and full black hair. Her mother had been as white as the driven snow, according to Gram, with long pale golden hair that reached to the middle of her back.
Her father’s people had been explorers who had sailed from across the sea from Abuja generations ago. They were rich in gold and silver, their knowledge of metallurgy and alchemy unparalleled. They became default royalty through keen intelligence and ambition. There weren’t many of that line left who could still claim the warm, dusky complexion Maya enjoyed, and the positive assumptions that went with it.
She smiled, pleased and surprised at Gram’s unexpected compliment.
Gram took her hand in hers. “I see you are determined to ignore my wishes and you are going to school?”
“I promise to walk softly,” Maya assured her. She turned away resolutely and grabbed her gray woolen cloak from the nail behind her door.
“I am sure you have heard rumors that I can see the future. Today I see you need to stay away from the main roads. Avoid any strangers even if they bear the Queen’s insignia. Especially if they bear the Queen’s insignia. Stay out of sight as much as you can. If a stranger stops you, for any reason, do not speak to them, turn around and come home immediately.”
Alarmed, Maya slouched back down on the bed. “Are there strangers about?”
“Not that I know of.”
Gram owned the land they lived on – the only taxes they paid were in fealty to the Queen herself, not that they’d ever had so much as a ‘thank ye’ in return. Still, they’d never had any trouble from her or her guards either. Or strangers.
Golten was far from the tumult and crime of the bigger villages, nestled snugly inside miles of green woodland that stretched up its thick forest fingers into the Forent Mountain Range, a stately set of four massive mountains. Beyond the craggy heights of the range, on the west coast of Voldaria lay the sprawling royal castle of the Queen herself.
The Queen sat between the mountains and the western beach – a secure stronghold that had withstood many attacks from neighboring islands. Like most people from Golten, Maya had never seen the castle or the Queen but she had heard of its opulence, its stately grandeur.
She stood, unsure, her curiosity piqued.
“I’ve heard the rumors in the village. That you can ‘see’ things, things no mortal has a right to see,” she added guiltily. She felt bad for even saying it. Magic was illegal and Gram would never do anything illegal. A look flitted across Gram’s face. Anger, maybe, a flare of her old fire, then resignation.
Sometimes there was a knock at the door in the middle of the night, some worried soul or love-struck fool, stopping by to see if Gram could help them. Maya never paid them much attention. People were superstitious, and Gram did know a lot about healing, herbs and tinctures, what tea to brew to sleep better, how to encourage a baby to take root, as often as not how to discourage the process.
Maya noticed, as she had a hundred times, that Gram’s small ears sloped to a gentle point. She was surprisingly strong for a woman her age, thin and willowy.
Gram snorted. “And some say I’m an elf. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”
Maya smiled, relieved. Of course, it was. There hadn’t been an elfin sighting since before she was born.
“Besides, if I were part elf, I’d be taller, wouldn’t I?”
Maya laughed. They both barely made it to the top of the doorway, all of five feet.
“We’re more dwarf than elf.”
“We are strong though, aren’t we?” Gram said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Remember what you did to Tyrius? So, maybe.” Maya scowled, remembering.
Tyrius. Just thinking of him made Maya’s skin crawl. He was older than her and Alban by a few years, with a cruel streak an ocean wide. He had thrown Alban down on the ground, kicking him repeatedly in his bad leg. It was Tyrius’ laughter that had overcome Maya’s own fear. She’d turned on the bully as quick as a wolverine, black eyes flashing, white teeth bared in a snarl.
She grabbed him by the leg as he raised it to kick again and swung him four feet into the air, until the wide trunk of a tree stopped his trajectory with a crack.
No one bothered her after that. Or Alban.
Gram followed Maya down the short hallway that led to the main room, their kitchen and working space. Maya barely registered the long kitchen counter where they cooked – pounding dough into bread or cutting vegetables and boiling grains for pottage, something they ate regularly during the cold winter months.
She could smell pottage cooking, and the intermingling scents of the lavender, sage, and wild onion that were in varying stages of drying. They flitted in the breeze as they passed them, twisting on their small cotton strings stretched across the wooden beam above the fireplace.
Maya used to like to imagine she was part elf; that she could talk to the trees and the animals. She and Alban would be gone for hours in the woods between their cottages and the school, exploring and dreaming. He would play his flute and she would make up stories and words to go with the songs he would play. But that was years ago and far away. She was practically a woman grown now.
Maya stopped before she got to the door, appreciating the warmth rolling off the fire in the white stone hearth. Their morning pottage was bubbling merrily in the large black cauldron suspended over a blazing fire by large iron hooks black with age and soot, and thick black chains. The smell of the fire and the pottage was enough to make her salivate.
Maya realized that in all her fourteen years living here, ever since her parents died, Gram had never once told Maya that she thought she might see the future.
She had time for breakfast, at least. Guilt and hunger pushed her into one of the two thick black-oak chairs they owned and Gram scooped some thick pottage into a wooden dish for her.
It was the small bowl with the chip in the lip that was hers alone. Years ago, in a fit of toddler rage, she had thrown the bowl resulting in the chip, and the bowl being ‘hers’ forever.
“Thank you,” Maya said sincerely as her stomach growled. It was a cold day to start on an empty stomach. She smiled as she had her first bite, groaning with pleasure. Gram had been up early, already getting the eggs from the few scrawny chickens they kept in their small backyard. She had mixed eggs and syrup from last year’s maple syrup supply into the pottage.
Esa had even thrown the last of the season’s juicy blueberries on top. That was when Maya noticed the fresh nails driven into the frame of the door. “One for luck. One for protection. One for good measure,” Esa said when she saw her looking at them.
It was an old Voldarian custom to drive a nail into the top of a doorframe before a journey to ensure good luck. Sometimes Gram did it when she was feeling uneasy. But three? This was new even for her. Maya began to feel the stirrings of doubt. Was she being foolish by insisting on going to school today? After they ate together in companionable silence, Maya reluctantly stood. Her heart wanted to go. She couldn’t live her life hiding in a two-room cottage with her grandmother. There was a whole wide, wild world out there and she wanted to be in it.
“I will be careful,” she promised, apologetically. She squeezed Gram’s hand reassuringly.
“You may take your looks from your father’s people, but your heart and spirit are from me and mine, stubborn as a mule.”
Gram nodded as if she’d suddenly made up her mind. “Go straight to school and come straight back after. No stopping at Alban’s.”
Maya nodded. “I will, I promise.”
After Maya’s parents died in an accident, Gram, her mother’s mother, had taken Maya to Golten. She barely remembered her grandfather, who had died when she was four. She didn’t remember her mother or father at all. Still, she’d never known a moment of neglect or abuse.
Another twist of guilt, but Maya pushed it away. She hated missing school. When the snows came in earnest, she’d miss too much time as it was. And this was her last year.
After she rinsed their bowls in the clay pot by the window, she put on her prized possession: a pair of tan leather, fur-lined boots, a gift from the shoemaker for helping to deliver her third child. The smell of well-oiled leather wafted up to her as she pulled them on.
Gram stood in the doorway as Maya walked out, her mouth clamped tight in a grim line of worry. Maya waved jauntily a few feet away, smiling, the pale underside of her hand glowing in the early morning mist.
Gram merely frowned and went inside, closing the door softly. Maya could hear a faint thumping sound from inside the cottage, and she realized it was probably Gram hammering another nail in the doorframe.
Maya snorted. What could possibly happen in Golten? They knew everyone who lived here, and there wasn’t an angry or violent soul among them. Sober, anyway. Not now that Alban’s dad had died.
Maya touched the rough wet bark of the pines on her way out, saying their names in her head. Logan, Sprite, Gant, and her favorite, as wide around as two grown men, Esmeralda, who was so tall she got dizzy trying to tilt her head up to see the top. Tiny water droplets frizzled in the air, more mist than rain.
Gram had campaigned tirelessly for a teacher when Maya had come to live with her. Maya didn’t remember it of course, being only three months old at the time, but people still talked about it. How Gram, an older woman clearly past childbearing years, with baby Maya on her back, had gone out in search of someone to come to the village to teach.
Then she had gone out and convinced a few of the villagers to help her build a small one-room school. She got it done right before a royal edict from the Queen Catherine that declared no more schools could be built. There was a lot of turmoil in those days.
Maya stopped at the first small cottage she came to and peeked inside at Alban’s room. It was dark but she could hear his familiar, even snores. She climbed in the window and got down close to one ear. “WAKE UP!”
Alban shot out of bed and landed back down in a scream that was half boy, half man. It started shrill and ended in a low, hoarse laugh.
“There will be payback for that, Maya.”
Maya grinned, finding comfort in their familiar bantering. Alban was as solid as a rock, as reliable as the sun that rose and set.
“ALBAN! Chores should be done by now if you want to go to school. MAYA, get out of there! You’re not kids anymore!” Alban’s mother yelled from farther inside the cottage.
Maya climbed back out the window. “Sorry, Auntie Bev – I’m outside now.”
Alban got up and met her at the window. “I’ll see you there.”
“Just don’t skip it, I’ve got news.”
Alban smiled, intrigued. “Really, what?”
“You’ll have to come to school to find out!”
Even though Maya had never lived anywhere but Golten, she was still considered an ‘outsider.’ She and Gram had come to Golten when she was a baby, and fourteen years wasn’t nearly enough time to be considered part of the Golten ‘family.’ Many could trace their lineage back three or four generations, most for longer than that, down to the first settlers, including Alban and his mother’s ancestors.
Usually, it didn’t bother her. But sometimes, when people got to talking about whose mother did what and whose father said this or that, she found herself wishing she could be included in the stories. What had her mother and father been like? What stories did they have?
She would never know. Gram refused to talk about them except to say her mother died trying to protect her, and of her father she would say nothing but that he had died suddenly but had loved her very much.
She waved to Alban and headed back onto the path, glancing back at their cottages, watching as their small homes disappeared behind a veil of fog.
She fought the urge to run back, to make sure Gram and her home were still there.
She shook her head and forced herself forward, stepping onto the road, wishing Alban could have come with her.