The muted light of an autumn morning filtered through the window as Danica pulled out one of her heavier red robes from a trunk at the foot of her bed. The floorboards were chill beneath her bare feet, and her nipples pressed against her blouse, still protesting the shock of leaving a warm bed.
She stayed well out of sight of the window, knowing that the farmhands would already be hard at work, despite the lean harvest. An unusually dry growing season meant that this would be an unpleasant and hungry winter for many. The Harvest Festival, always a high point of the season, already appeared as though it wouldn't happen this year. People were simply too depressed about what was to come, and unwilling to splurge in celebration what might be needed for survival.
Danica wrapped her robe around her and breathed a sigh of relief as it warmed. She hooked the buttons, tied the belt, and then selected a pair of stockings that would ward off the chill of the long walk to the school, but wouldn't be too warm within the close quarters of the small building. Once she pulled them and her shoes on, she finally felt comfortable for the first time since rising.
Either her hood or the wind would end up reversing most of the effort, but she sat down at the dressing table to brush out her auburn hair anyway. She reached for her brush, which always sat in the same place, and wrinkled her brow in confusion when it wasn't there.
Once, the reason why it wasn't where it was supposed to be would have been easy enough to figure out. Her sister had frequently grabbed whatever was closest at hand, and dropped it wherever she was when she was done with it. Devan had left for Destindale years before, though.
Danica glanced around her dressing table, moved a few things that might have hidden the brush, and let out a frustrated growl when it was nowhere to be found. She pushed back the chair in preparation to dig up one of Devan's old ones from the trunk of her things in the room, but then she spied the elusive brush.
Upon picking it up, she stared curiously at it, wondering how it had ended up on the windowsill. She couldn't recall even touching it since her bath the night before, let alone carrying it anywhere. She shrugged, and returned to the dressing table to finish the task at hand.
The house was quiet when she descended the stairs, which could only mean that Daniel was out with their father in the barn. The sound of humming from the kitchen made her smile, because it meant that her mother was feeling well this morning - something all too rare of late. The smell of coffee and sizzling pork drew her into the kitchen, her stomach rumbling.
"Morning, dear," Danica's mother greeted her, even as she sat down a cup of coffee on the table.
"Good morning," Danica responded, gratefully picking up the cup and letting the steaming brew warm her from within.
"Don't you dare think about running off to school without eating this morning."
"Trust me, Mom, I won't. It smells wonderful."
"Ready, too. I'll fix you up a plate before the menfolk herd in here."
"Thank you, Mom. I'm starving."
A minute later, a plate heaped high with eggs and bacon settled on the table in front of her. "No arguments. You're not eating enough lately. You're too blessed up top to be all skin and bones."
"Yes, Mom," Danica said and rolled her eyes. Her growling stomach was making it impossible to resist, anyway. She decided that she'd just have a light lunch to make up for it.
With her plate clean and her cup empty a short while later, Danica reluctantly pushed her chair back and stood up. After such a filling meal, all she really wanted to do was sit at the table for another hour or two.
Her mother's tone was conversational when she asked, "Have you decided whether you're going to stay on and teach at the school, Danica?"
It was really the last thing she wanted to do. Her sister had set the example, going away to study at a magic school in Destindale. Ever since then, Danica had dreamed of doing the same, though she wanted to go to Freeland. Rumor had it that some of the greatest teachers in the world resided there. The problem was that such grand aspirations required coin she simply didn't have.
Not wanting to ruin her mother's good mood, Danica answered, "For now, at least."
"I'd wager that your handsome young man would like you to stay around."
Danica couldn't help but blush. At some point during the last year, her mother had decided that she was officially a woman. With that decision had come frank and frequent discussions of marriage, sex, and all manner of other topics that Danica hardly felt comfortable talking about with her mother. It did mean that she didn't have to sneak around quite as much as her sister had to at her age, but it still made her skin crawl at times.
She suspected that the discovery she was barren might have influenced her mother's decision to give her more freedom. So far, that was a secret from everyone except the immediate family.
"I don't have a lot of choice right now, anyway," she said, and shrugged.
Her mother came over and reached down to take her hands. "Dear, you don't give yourself enough credit - in anything. You are beautiful. You have your magic. You'll find your place. Just give it time."
"I know, Mom," Danica responded, even though she didn't really believe it. She hugged her mother, and then said, "I need to get going."
"If the menfolk aren't already headed this way, yell at them when you go past the barn."
"I will," Danica said as she left the room and headed for the front door.
Her father, brother, and the farmhands were already on the way toward the house when she left, so Danica simply offered them a wave and continued on her way. A blast of autumn air made one decision easy for her. She shivered and pulled up her hood, her steps quickening toward the tree-lined path to the school, where the wind wouldn't be quite so fierce.
The gale was indeed stifled amongst the trees, but a sense of uneasiness washed over her soon after setting foot on the path. Disturbed by the feeling and still cold, she picked up the pace, her robes swishing and thrumming in the wind. The familiar sight of the school filled her with a sense of relief shortly thereafter. She hurried inside, leaving the cold and the odd sensation behind.
Danica winced at a horribly mispronounced word, as most of the apprentices headed toward the door. "That's enough for today. Keep practicing, and we'll try again tomorrow."
"Okay," the young student said as he closed his spellbook, and then went to join his friends filing out the front door.
Danica shook her head and rolled her eyes as the students left. If you would pay attention to what you're trying to learn instead of staring at my boobs, you would have learned this spell by now.
Even the thick robe she wore couldn't really hide her doubly-blessed bosom, as her mother often called her breasts. Though she'd more or less grown used to not making eye contact with any male beyond puberty, it was still irritating.
"Well, Danica, did you have any luck today?"
She turned toward the grey-bearded master of the school and shrugged. "Adina will probably be ready to cast the fireball tomorrow. After that, I won't be of much use in teaching her."
"Danica, Danica," he admonished, and then clucked his tongue. "You have a great deal of knowledge in both magic and life that you can pass on to another young woman. Be confident. It matters not if you're the most powerful in magic. Where you excel, you continue to amaze m e. In those areas where you struggle, you persevere. The best teachers are forever learning, themselves."
The argument was one that she could never win, much the same as disagreeing with her mother, so Danica simply nodded. "Of course, Master." She reached for her enchanted bag of holding, which she'd left hanging on a chair nearby, and found it gone.
A quick glance around the room revealed the bag hanging from a cloak hook, which she knew that she hadn't gone anywhere near all day.
The old master puzzled out what was wrong when she let out a sigh and walked toward her bag. He chuckled and said, "Ah, yes. The mischievous ones are certainly active this year. I am forever finding my things misplaced these last few days. I surely welcome the Harvest Festival, which will see them locked away for another year."
Danica turned toward him with a look of confusion. "You haven't heard? There probably won't be a festival this year, because of the drought."
Somehow, the pale old man turned even whiter, his eyes going wide. "No festival? No, no, this simply will not do."
Slipping her bag over her shoulder, Danica said, "I doubt there's any changing it. Everyone is just too worried about surviving a lean winter to make merry."
"There is far more to it than that, Danica," he said. "Come, I have an important lesson for you that is too long in coming."
Curious and perplexed, Danica followed her master into his private quarters at the rear of the school. As always, she marveled at his library. Though humble by the standards of a wealthy wizard, it was the greatest collection of magical works for miles around.
"Please, sit down," he suggested, and let out a groan as he pulled out a chair for her.
Danica took her seat, and her master walked to the shelves to select a book. He flipped through the pages of the aged tome as he returned, and then stopped when he found what he was looking for.
.... There is more of this story ...