Before the sun broke the horizon, there was a gentle knock on the front door. “Coming!” I instinctively shouted, and tore myself from my cozy bed. Upon opening the door, I found a young man in overalls and muddy boots on our greeting mat. He removed his hat and held it to his chest as he spoke. “Hello, is this the Happy farm?”
Allow me to explain. We started off virtually unknown to the rest of the world. A tiny mountain village in a tiny country ruled by royalty, not even our neighbouring towns knew we existed. That was, until I discovered my love of horticulture.
I stepped aside to open up the house to the young farmer. “It is, please come in.”
His expression brightened, and he gave a sigh of relief before scraping his boots against our welcoming mat and entering our home. “Thank you.”
As part of my routine, I inquired, “Tell me about your farm.”
He ruffled his hair, and stood in the middle of our kitchen as he explained. “It just,” he dropped his hands. “Turned to dust. Every year, we get dust clouds, and well I- I had heard that you know how to solve that problem.”
“Please, sit down, I'll prepare us some breakfast.”
As I rummaged through our cupboards for flour, I began the story. “Our village started off the same as yours, with annual dust clouds. When I was an infant, my mother carried me in a sling on her back while she tilled the ground with her hoe. Surely, the same changes occurred on your farm; the soil couldn't sustain life anymore, maybe you moved onto a different plot of land just like we did.”
“Yes, we did,” he replied simply, watching me mix flour and yeasty water together.
“Well, things changed by accident, by a stroke of luck, really. When I was four years old, my mother sustained an injury in her back, and it left her bed bound. Though the villagers took care of us, I still had chores to do that I was just,” I sighed, as I kneaded the dough. “Was too weak for. I just dumped buckets of food waste and bodily waste outside our back door because I was too weak to take it to the pit we had for garbage.”
With the dough kneaded smooth, I placed a damp dish towel over it, and made my way to our barrel full of rainwater. I scooped it in a kettle, and stood by the stove to wait for it's boil.
“We were actually surprised when spring rolled in, because plants sprouted from the waste. Cucumber vines from seeds, carrots from their tops, and bushes from rotten berries, the waste quickly bloomed into a garden. I didn't want to smother these new plants, so I trudged our waste further and further, covering as much unproductive land as I could.”
“But-” the farmer cut me off. “Didn't you have a pest problem because of that?”
“Not at all. Scavenging animals actually helped out, because they spread seeds farther, and perpetually nourished the soil by digging, pooping, and dying on the land. For the first time ever, our historical issue of plant pests didn't arrive, because predatory insects built a home in the garden.”
I poured tea for the farmer, whose name I neglected to ask because of morning fatigue. As I sat down at the table across from him, I asked for his name, then continued the story. “The following year, I realized fewer plants withered under our harsh sun. Because I didn't rake the soil, there was a nice layer of mulch keeping the plants moisturized and healthy like fat succulents between periods of rain. By time my mom recovered, the land was completely transformed, and we never looked back.”
From then on, my mother and I worked together to experiment with different gardening practices, some of them created out of laziness. At the age of 12, I had already established myself as a successful farmer, inspiring farmers such as this young man to flock to our village, seeking advice and teaching them the skills necessary to prevent famines across the country.
Of course, this fame didn't come without a price. In the past five years, us villagers have been forced to sell the food specifically nurtured by our hands to the upper class, slowly stripped my village of subsistence in exchange for riches. I watched carriages roll in weekly, transporting supplies out of our once abundant village, and nearly reducing us to famine again.
As if it wasn’t enough to steal our food, they came to the source of it all; there was a knock at the door again. This time, it was a strong knock vibrating throughout the entire house, threatening to knock the door itself down. My usual announcement fell from my throat into the pit of my stomach. Upon answering the door, the harsh brightness of light magic assaulted my eyes. Before my vision could adjust, someone cleared their throat.
“By decree of the...” the man's voice faded, barely able to make out his words from the blood that rushed to my ears.
“What's going on?” my mother said as she rushed to my side, quickly throwing her robe on. I desperately wanted to cling to my mother in that moment, to return to the sling on her back and never leave. But the image of these royal knights ripping me off my own mother, hurting her in the process, was enough to keep me from acting on impulse. “The royal family wants to employ me as their personal farmer.”
“This is a great honor,” the knight who previously read off the deafening letter said. Of course it is, I wanted to reply sarcastically. For how could I refuse such a great honor, when the threat of punishment from defiance is looming over me?
My mother couldn't speak. She looked at me with a panicked expression, and I responded with a solemn smile. “Let me pack my things.”
“There will be no need, you will be provided for when we arrive,” one of the knights informed me. Just like our food, I would be stripped away without a fight, stuffed into a carriage to serve the upper class. Perhaps I'm cursed, for all I've ever wanted was a peaceful life, hidden from all outside of my village.
“Miss- er, Sir?” someone called out to me. I slowly opened my eyes, realizing I must've fallen asleep. And missed the scenery along the way, the only thing I had to look forward to. I noticed that the carriage door was open, and the driver was holding out his hand in my direction. “We've arrived.”
As I stepped out of the carriage, my breath was taken away at the sheer size of the castle. Holy shit. My entire village could fit in there.
When my gaze drifted from the castle, I noticed the array of servants and maids out to greet me. Rather than welcomed, I felt dirty and pungent in comparison to their finely pressed uniforms that smelled of roses. Not like the palace guards gave me time to change out of my homespun pajamas when they arrived at my doorstep and whisked me away.
A lady, whom I assumed to be one of the kitchen staff from the uniform, spoke up first. “Welcome, Happy Bells, we've heard great things about you.”
It wasn't until the next day that I'd actually meet the royal family that summoned me. I had vaguely heard of them from neighbours and fellow farmers, but I couldn't remember their names. What I did know, however, was that the royal family consisted of a ruthless, unjust King, and a horrendous Queen. I knew both were powerful in the art of magic, and dabbled in the development of science, but were surpassed by their prodigy children in both fields. From what the letter told me, the youngest daughter requested me specifically to learn about healing the Earth, as a doctor would a body. I suppose eventually rumors about myself would spread around the kingdom, I just never expected it to reach the upper class.
After a thorough bathing, I was given my uniform. The outfit was a tad too large, but the stitching was so perfect that I didn't want to ruin it with my amateur skills. Before deploying me to their weak, dry fields, I was to make an appearance before the royal family, as if I were a murderer awaiting a sentence.
Exiting the servants quarters, it was immediately apparent that the royal family held more wealth than the entire country altogether. Golden statues, silk wallpaper, gaudy decorations covering every inch of the enormous estate.
One of the butlers escorted me into a regal room with four velvet chairs at the farthest wall. I kneeled on the plush and elaborately decorated rug laid in front of them, and offered my name. “I'm grateful to have this opportunity to work for you, your majesty,” I lied politely.
One of the royal members, I assumed the youngest daughter, sprung from her seat with her hands clasped together. “I've heard so much about you! It's an honor to meet you, sir Bells.”
Sir? I expected this to happen, but I didn't realize how uncomfortable it'd make me, especially since I didn't feel I could openly correct them on such a subject. “The honor is all mine, Princess,” I lied again. I wanted to go home.
The Princess pulled a small notebook from the pocket of her dress, and willed a quill to float in the air above it with a spell. I had never seen magic being used before, so I was too mesmerized to pay attention to what she was saying.
The Queen groaned and rubbed her temples. “Leo, go with your sister, make sure she doesn't dirty herself, we have guests attending dinner tonight.”
The Prince put his hands in the pockets of his embroidered pants, and walked towards me while his sister vigorously shook my hand. He coolly walked past me, only turning to say, “You gonna come, or what?”
“Ah, yes.” I bowed to the King and Queen before following the Prince, as the Princess asked me questions quicker than I could answer.
“This is our plot, formerly maintained by a long line of farmers we employed over the past few centuries. When I was a child, I could feel what magical energy was left in the land quickly disappearing, and since last year, it turned to dust. We've had to import our food from your village to the castle ever since,” the Princess explained.
“Well, first off, we're going to need to tear down the fences around this plot of land.”
“What?” the Prince interrupted. “If we do that, animals will wander in and destroy our crops before you can harvest.”
As always, I needed to put in my usual disclaimer. “I know my methods are going to sound bizarre, but I was hired because I get good results.” The Prince didn't reply. “We often forget that the soil is a network of living beings, and when we cut larger animals off, we lose the benefits they bring to the life cycle. Sure, rabbits are going to eat some lettuce, but they'll also fertilize the soil with their excrements. If larger animals, like wolves, are able to access this area, they'll keep herbivore populations to a minimum, as well as add nutrients to the soil from the scraps of their meals.” I rubbed my neck, feeling uncomfortable talking this much without being able to show them anything. “Blood is a pretty great fertilizer.”
The Princess nodded along, her quill writing down notes as I talked. I explained what I planned to do in full, and slowly the Prince uncrossed his arms and paid attention with interest as well.
“How long will it be until we can use this plot again?” the Princess asked.
“Usually, just one season, provided we can get the needed resources, like leaves and twigs. Since it's fall, we can leave the land to rest over the winter, and start using it in the spring.”
The Princess's eyes sparkled.
“Where are we going to get all the supplies we need? There isn't really a market for leaves and twigs.” the Prince added.
I rubbed the back of my neck again. “I usually go into the forest to start up a self-reliant farm.” I took a moment to breathe, debating if I should tell non-farmers about the 'secret' ingredients us farmers use. “Um, we'll also be able to collect, um, human excrements to amend the soil. It's a free, and abundant source.”
The royals recoiled in disgust. “Do you mean-”
“Yeah. I know it sounds gross, but bacteria and animals eat it all up before we amend the soil with it. Technically, we grow food in the poop of small organisms.”
The Prince held his stomach as if he were going to be sick. “I think... I think I'm going to stick to meat from now on.”
“Unfortunately, animals such as pigs feed on human and animal feces as well.”
He bent over, and put a hand out in front of me. “Please stop, you're going to ruin food forever.”
“Wow,” the Princess said, looking out onto the barren plot. “I never realized how much recycling farming required. It's its own food chain.”
I smiled at her. “Precisely.”
By time the sun disappeared under the horizon, the castle came to life. More workers than I had seen the previous day, they were all rushing to clean and prep food. I was given the side task of lugging all the imported food from the side of the castle into the kitchen. The kitchen was bustling, dozens of pots boiling on a long wood-powered stove. Despite it being night, the entire castle was light with magic, and it glowed like an afternoon sun.
“Eva!” I heard the Princess yell from a different part of the castle. Unconsciously, I ended up walking in the direction of her loud voice, carrying a bag of over-matured onions I was going to compost outdoors. The Princess was loudly chatting about something I couldn't clearly make out, but she burst with excitement when she saw me in the hallway.
“That's him!” she announced, pointing in my direction.
Beside the Princess was another upper class member, whom I assumed was around our age as well, elegantly dressed with pink ribbons and golden jewellery. “Happy, this is my friend, and future duchess, Eva Kerry,” she introduced as Eva took a curtsy.
Ah, I know this one! “Your father is Duke James Kerry,” I unintentionally said out loud.
Eva flashed me a warm smile. “That's the one. You're from the village Feronia, correct?” I nodded my head, only realizing in that moment that her father is the Duke over the Mountainous regions of Hirpus where I live, which is why I remembered his name. “I've so been looking forward to meeting you. I'm a mage, specializing in terraforming, and have long heard of your influence over Safina hills.”
I blushed from the acknowledgement. As I opened my mouth to respond, the Prince- Leo, if I recall correctly, slid to Eva's side. I took note of his primed appearance; he shaved the dull mustache he had earlier, greased his hair back and combed it into uniform waves, like perfect ripples in a pond, and smelled of fragrant warm spices.
“Eva, how are you this evening? Shall we go to the dining room? I think your stepmother was looking for you,” he said in one breath, already pushing her towards the dining room. He glared at me for a moment before disappearing from my vision with Eva and his sister, Camilla.
Did I do something wrong?
I adjusted the bag of onions in my arms, and continued on my journey out of the maze-like castle to return to the plot of dry Earth they called a farm.