Join Emily’s Readers’ Group
One wish could change her life forever…
Widow Maythorn Miller was beautiful once—until her husband crippled her. But if her face is ruined and her body broken, she still knows how to love. For years her heart has yearned for a man she can never have: the village blacksmith, Ren.
But Maythorn lives near the border with Faerie, a place where strange and unexpected things can happen…
Maythorn’s Wish is a magical and heartwarming tale of courage, love, and new beginnings. If you like your heroines strong, your heroes honorable, and your Faeries dangerous, you’ll love the Fey Quartet novellas!
Receive a free digital copy of The Fey Quartet when you join my Reader’s Group.
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 liege-men, 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 are 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 bonesetting, 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 care-fully 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.
The crying came again.
“I don’t like that sound,” the widow told the trees, and she clutched the basket more tightly with her good hand and shuffled in the direction of the noise.
Within a dozen steps, she came to another stream. This one was dark and swift and it hissed as it flowed, as if whispering fierce secrets.
The crying sound came again, louder, closer, and it seemed as if both she and the stream were headed for it. Widow Miller eyed the dark water warily, and pushed through a grove of prickly yews. The ground was rough and rocky, the trees gnarled, the forest dark with shadows. I don’t like this, the widow thought, and she hesitated and considered turning back. Through the trees she glimpsed a deep, black pond, and bobbing on the deep, black pond was a basket like the one she carried, and in the basket was a baby.
The widow uttered a cry of horror, and she cast aside her herbs and hurried forward, lurching and hobbling. Boulders tripped her and branches clawed at her clothes, but the widow fought her way to the pond. She flung aside her shawl and plunged in. Two steps, and the bottom fell away beneath her feet. Dark, icy water engulfed her, filling eyes and nose and mouth.
As a bride, the widow had swum naked in moonlit river pools, but she no longer had two strong arms and two strong legs and a strong, young husband beside her. Panic spiked in her chest. She clawed frantically at the water. Her head burst free, and she gulped for air and turned desperately towards the safety of the bank.
The high, thin wail sounded again.
Widow Miller found the bottom of the pool with one foot, and wrestled with her panic. Her lungs heaved and her heart hammered and she felt the prickling of Faerie over her scalp. She was near the border of the forbidden realm. Dangerously near. Too near. Common sense urged her to turn back, but the widow had been a mother three times, and motherhood was in her blood. When the wailing came again, high and thin and desperate, she thrust away from the bank and swam towards the basket bobbing in the middle of the pool.
Widow Miller was crippled and lopsided, and the pool was wide—and growing wider with every heartbeat—but she kicked and swam with all her might, hauling herself through the water. The basket bobbed out of reach, and the kitten-like wail came again—and then the widow’s groping hand found the woven rim and she gripped it tightly and pulled the basket towards her. “I have you,” she choked out. “You’re safe.” But the pool grew choppy, as if a strong wind blew. Waves slapped the widow’s face. Water filled her nose and mouth. She couldn’t see the bank, could barely breathe. Her clothes dragged her down, her left hand was useless, her weak leg a dragging weight. She gripped the basket and thought, We’re both going to drown, and then she thought of her daughters—solemn Ivy, bold Hazel, shy Larkspur—and she gritted her few teeth and kicked her good leg with all the strength she had.
Widow Miller fought her way back across the pond. The bank drew painfully nearer, and her feet eventually found purchase. She dragged herself clumsily ashore and knelt, gasping and shivering, clutching the basket. When she’d caught her breath, she lifted her head and gazed at the crying baby she’d rescued.
She saw a pale, heart-shaped face and a wailing pink mouth with tiny teeth as white and sharp as a young fox’s.
Fear prickled up the back of her neck. Faerie.
Widow Miller cautiously stroked the baby’s pale cheek. “You’re safe,” she whispered.
The wailing died to a whimper. The baby blinked and gazed up at her.
Every hair on Widow Miller’s scalp stood on end. She had never seen such dark and terrible eyes. They were fully black, black to the outermost edges, as black as the deepest, darkest night, full of wisdom and cruelty.
Widow Miller suppressed a shiver. A babe, she told herself. ’Tis but a babe. She took up her shawl and gently tucked it around the infant in the basket, and then she stroked the pale, tender cheek again. “I shall take you home with me, and tomorrow we shall find your mother.” And somehow, she found the strength to stand.