Chapter One

Maja awoke with the stink of smoke still in her mouth without conscious thought she fought her way to the window and threw it as wide as it would go.  Gasping in the cool fresh air she began to obsess, always the same dream and the same questions, and before reality truly set in, as if with instinct, Talis still taken by sleep stood in the doorway with concern upon her face.

“Talis how did I manage to wake you?  I only walked to the window.”

“That may well be so but don’t you pretend that you cannot feel the tension in this house child we both could choke.”  She smiled as if the two shared a joke, but turned suddenly serious, “What bothers you Maja dear?”

“I had the dream again,” shyly she looked at the floor embarrassed to still nightmare when she was no longer a girl-child of eight but a young woman of sixteen.  Digitalis gave her a knowing look but only said, “We should dress; the morning waits for no woman.”  She steeped forward to help her dress as she always had and stopped dead in her tracks saying, “Maja can you manage, I must get everything ready,” as she hurried from the room.  The girl responded to the question after the door had closed, “I must learn.”

Maja looked down on the layers of cloth she had set out the night before, they were the finest woman’s ridding wears she had yet to sew.  There was the soft flax white under shift with capped sleeves, seemly for a lady in summer, and a flounced long underskirt.  Then made of thin wool was a jade colored tunic with two split skirts one of pale yellow and one of jade green. Looking at the pile of fabric with their ties and fastenings she smiled.

“If only I was still young and in smocks.”

Maja pulled the shift over her head straightening the hems as she went and then stepped barefooted into the ring of her yellow skirt, which took a full five minutes to tie properly.  The last layer of skirt went over her head and buttoned up to the middle of her ribs, and the tunic laced up the sides and fell to the middle of her stomach.  The soft tan leather ridding boots were much less trying as she was quite used to the well-worn wood soled shoes.  She also took the time to neatly tie her hair into loose knots with waxed cloth.

She wound her way down the hall and the low stairs wondering what it would be like to live anywhere other than Larkspur.  Maja found herself standing still looking at everything as if to preserve it this way in her mind forever as a nameless sense of foreboding washed over her.  With the final turn of the stairs she found herself facing Talis who sat at the table with Mother talking over herb tea. The scent of marsh-berry bread and spice cream soup filed the room and fried avis covered the table.

“What are you thinking on?”

The simple question quickly brought Majalis back to the present, “I was wondering, nothing more.”  However the simple the answer did not have the desired effect instead of calming the older woman she was now in outrage. “That may be but you have not just yourself to think about, but rather what can be done where you are to go.”

“Yes Mother but where is that, not a soul has spoken of it?  I don’t even know if I will be ridding back with Digitalis.”

The woman’s face had softened slightly at the girl’s last words and a quick glance at Talis caused her eyes to blur as if she was now looking afar.  Softly she said, “Eat child and I will talk,” as she gestured to the seat across the table.  “It is my wish that Digitalis goes to collect the young girls who will be joining us this cutting from the East.  You will accompany her on this trip to Vesper, however you will not be returning.”  The older woman registered Maja’s shock and anger quickly moving forward effectively cutting off the girl’s response.  “I am not sending you to be married off to some stranger, child control yourself.  I am no longer able to make such decisions for you.”

A quiet followed Mother’s last words that was filled with questions, and Maja’s restraint wore thin.  “No one breath’s a word of this to me, no time to prepare myself for this…this dismissal, and then you say you can not decide for me.  Have I slipped into a fresh nightmare?  None of this makes sense.”

“You forget yourself, child.”  The steel applied to each of those words worked to force Maja back into her seat and into an outward appearance of calm though the tempest still raged within.  “I would have thought that the dying wish of your mother would at least have your respect.”  It was here that Mother stopped.  She appeared to be quite beyond finishing as she sipped at her tea in the silence.

So it had come at last, how was she not ready for this, the girl deserved answers, but they truly were not hers to give.  No, they were her mother’s, and she was no longer alive, but it was not fair to send her out with no knowledge of why.  Looking up from her tea Mother could read the questions in Maja’s eyes and answered.  “I can only tell you what I myself know.  Your mother was my own fostering and I was there when she had you.  Dahlia died shortly after you were born, living long enough only to tell me what she would of your story.  Your father’s name is Dronocum, and they were to be married.  However, as you will find, most things do not go according to plan, and instead of walking that path she went to her mother’s to wait out the birthing.  Dahlia refused to see him again which means that you were never known to him.  She told me to have you fostered in the Umbel in the old way until . . . until you were of age.  Now that you are, you leave for Demesne Vesper; we do not put you out because you are unworthy or unable, but because this is as it must be.”  Quietly Mother placed her hands in her lap and awaited Maja’s response.

“I had the dream, again, last night but I remembered more of it,” Mother now wore surprise written across her face shooting a quick glance at Talis as Majalis continued, “There was a woman, the one who found me, we talked.  She told me,” the girl hesitated as if unsure she should continue, “Mother why would I go to the Phlox?”

While it was not the response she had expected from the sixteen year old it did please her and she even allowed herself a moment of pride; good she knew.  “As you know the Phlox is known to the Umbel as the High Seeress of the Demes, but to the nobility she is known as a teacher of young heirs and heiresses.”

“What would any of that have to do with me going to see the Seeress?”

“You will go to your father and he will either accept you into your noble life, or you will live a life as you will apart from the Umbel.”

The information did not so much sink in as Maja just reacted to it.  “But what if he does not want me, no what if I don’t want him?  Will I be left with nothing not even Talis?”

“Of course you will not be left with nothing, we are not heartless.  As your cousin, Digitalis will give you a dower.  If you are put away, by your father, she can bind you to another or take you into her home, but not the Umbel.

“You exile me because of an unknown father and blood.”

“No I exile you because if I held you I would be killed, I sent word child, as your mother requested at your birth.  Would you harm us so?”

“Never.  I go freely but not willingly.”

“I release you to go and fulfill what has been laid at your feet.”