I thought making love to the Sun was the most unbearable pain I would ever experience.
Giving birth to His child was far worse.
But my story starts a little before that, and ends long, long after.
And so we begin.
It wasn’t quite time for the corn to be worthy of birds, or the cornfields to be in need of a scarecrow. But that did not mean the scarecrows could not be put to good use.
I slipped from a copse of trees, my feet bare, my skirt tied in a knot around my calves. My hair hung wildly over both shoulders, a few strands catching on my eyelashes, as I hurried in a half crouch toward Farmer May’s home. She lived on the edge of Endwever, my small hometown that was nestled in the forests of Helchanar. Near the exact center, or so the maps of the time claimed.
My sister, two years my junior, hissed behind me, “Are you mad? They’ll see you!”
“Then hurry!” I whispered back, keeping my eyes on the kitchen window. It was large and open, but so far I’d not seen any movement behind it. When I drew within six paces of the house, I dropped to my knees. Mud from yesterday’s rain seeped into my skirt, but one could not stay clean if she wanted to pull off a successful prank. It was not possible. That was why Idlysi could never do this on her own. She cared far too much for cleanliness.
I motioned for her to follow. Her blue eyes looked huge in her pale face, and her gaze never broke from the window as she hurried to my side. As she did every time I coerced her into having fun with me, she said, “I can’t believe I agreed to this. Mother will be furious.”
I shushed her. “Follow me and she won’t know.”
Idlysi passed me a withering look. “Who else in town would do such a thing?”
I paused, considering. I had earned a bit of a reputation, and Endwever was a small place. There were only so many people one could point a finger at. “Todrick?”
Idlysi rolled her eyes.
Grinning, I crept around the back of the house, pausing over a sudden noise—but that was just Farmer May’s old cow, whapping her tail against the weathered fence of her pen. My prize was in sight: a narrow shed connected to the back wall of the house, right beside the back door.
Idlysi froze as we neared. If anyone stepped out that back door, we would be caught. But I would just straighten and claim I was looking for a missing chicken. Idlysi . . . well, she would likely start crying and admit to everything before being asked, but it wasn’t nearly as fun to do these things by myself, and Caen claimed he was getting too old to participate. He was busy working on our cottage today, anyway. The cottage we would move into in five months, after I turned twenty, which was marrying age in Helchanar. We’d been betrothed since I was twelve and he fourteen.
The thought brought butterflies to my stomach and a smile to my cheeks. I reached the shed and pulled up the latch holding it together. Idlysi lingered behind, ready to run to the woods should someone approach.
When I moved a rake and shovel, my prize smiled at me.
He was old, his shirt tearing at the shoulders, the buttons long since pulled free for other mending, but he was large and awful and perfect.
“Help me,” I whispered, and Idlysi slunk around the shed, shaking with nerves. She grabbed one of the scarecrow’s straight arms, and I took the other. Together we heaved the thing free. No time to return the tools or close the shed; Farmer May would soon be out. Such was part of my plan.
Stifling a laugh, I pushed Idlysi back toward the house, both of us crouching as we dragged the scarecrow past the kitchen window and around to the front of the house. I hurried up the two wooden steps leading to the small porch, and Idlysi, who had refused to remove her shoes, clunked behind me. I shushed her again, pushing her and the scarecrow toward the gap in the floorboards of the porch. I’d noticed the gap when I came for butter yesterday, which was how I’d gotten this idea. The hole was just the right size for a scarecrow stump.
It took more effort than I would have liked to secure the thing; someone moved inside, and Idlysi squeaked and dropped her side of the scarecrow, leaving me to finish the task while she bolted for that copse of trees. But I got the stump planted, swallowed a fit of laughter, knocked on the door, and fled after her, sprinting on my toes to reach the copse before anyone could open the door.
I dived into the trees before I was seen, but not in time to turn around and see Farmer May’s face. I only heard her scream.
Giggles burst from my throat, and I doubled over, forehead against the young spring grass, laughing.
“Oh, what a horrible thing we’ve done!” Idlysi cried.
Farmer May’s voice tore through the morning air. “I know it was you, Wendens! Get back here!”
Idlysi looked ready to sick up. “I told you.” Then, “Sun save us, she’s coming this way!”
Still laughing, I grabbed my sister’s hand and dragged her through the trees, into the greater forest, dancing across familiar trails and raised tree roots. She barked at me to slow down, but I didn’t. The trick to the forest was this: so long as you could see the spire of the cathedral, you would never get lost, so I kept the copper point in my peripheral vision, angling closer if ever it dipped beneath the canopy, dragging my sister all the way.
Like most towns in Helchanar, our greatest attraction was the cathedral on the northeast side of town. It was circular in shape, as celestial things are, with a lily garden at its center and a bright copper spire above its southwest doors. It was built before my time and would surely last beyond it, structured by dedicated, faithful, and forgotten hands. My great-great-grandfather was said to be the one who crafted the stained glass. I paid little attention to it; when one grows up so close to beauty, it is easy to dismiss.
Fortunately, my soon-to-be cottage was close by, so we darted from the trees to its finished walls. Caen sat on a joist of the roof, working thatch into place. He looked up as we darted inside.
A small smile tugged up the side of his mouth. “Oh, Ceris. What have you done now?”
I beamed at him, his attention warmer than the Sun’s own light. “Nothing terrible!”
Farmer May shouted again, far more distant.
Caen frowned. “Nothing terrible?”
I pulled the knot from my muddy dress and twirled, letting the skirt fan out. “Only propped up Farmer May’s scarecrow by her front door. We hardly moved it!”
Caen chuckled, but Idlysi was biting off the tip of her thumbnail, as though terrified Farmer May might run us through with a shovel.
Hands behind my back, I peered up at Caen. “And how are you today?”
“Better than you’re going to be.” His focus returned to the thatch.
I shrugged. “Mother hardly cares what I do.”
It was true, or at least it was true now. She’d been distant all of my adolescence, ever since my betrothal was secured. Simply put, she considered me someone else’s problem. I often felt like a cow whose milk had dried up, simply taking up space in the backyard until someone could sell me for meat.
“I wasn’t talking about you.”
Idlysi began working on the nail of her index finger.
I sighed. On my part, my mother hardly cared, but Idlysi, at seventeen, had yet to make a match. There were so few bachelors around, and since my father was the cathedral steward, he preferred not to take long trips from home, even if it were to secure a future for Idlysi. He’d have to start looking soon enough, but there was still time. Idlysi couldn’t marry for another three years.
It wasn’t long before my mother’s voice came barking through the town. There were only so many places we could hide; it didn’t take a scholar to determine the cottage was one of them.
“Idlysi Wenden!” She trudged toward the gap where the front door would go. Caen passed us a sympathetic look. Idlysi, tears in her eyes, scowled at me before stepping out. I followed, right on her heels.
“Terrorizing Farmer May? Really?” Mother look tired, the lines around her eyes deep. “You are too old for such things!”
“It wasn’t terrorizing,” I said in a feeble attempt to defend our actions. “It was moving a scarecrow from one side of the house to the other. We can move it right back.”
“You certainly will.” But Mother only had eyes for Idlysi. She would have grabbed my sister by the ear, were Caen—and likely a few other villagers—not watching. “And you’ll spend the rest of your day indoors, taking my share of the chores, since you have so much free time.”
I couldn’t bear to watch Idlysi crumble beneath the scolding. And it was only Idlysi being scolded. I had been the mastermind behind the joke. I had goaded her into it.
I stepped in front of my sister, forcing my mother to pay attention to me. “I will move the scarecrow, and I will take the chores, if that’s what you insist on.”
Mother frowned at me, like my presence exhausted her. “Can you not just leave her be?” Then, to Caen, “I’m sorry to drag you into this.”
Caen offered her a warm smile. “I don’t mind, Mrs. Wenden.”
Mother sighed and grabbed Idlysi by the wrist, forcing me to step aside. Head down, Idlysi followed her back to our home, leaving me behind.
Once they’d gone, Caen set down his tools. “She let you off easy.”
I folded my arms. “She always does.” I had always been different from my sisters. To me, rules were things to be bent and tried, if they detracted from happiness—mine or others’, it didn’t matter. Joy was my primary motivator. I believed that was why my parents betrothed me at so young an age. To inflict me with responsibility, yes, but also to assure themselves someone else would take the burden of ruling over me. Once the agreements were made, I didn’t matter anymore. Regardless of what I did, I was still the milkless cow in the backyard, watching through the window as my sister took my fall, again.
I wouldn’t be able to bring her along next time. The consequences hurt too much. But little did I know then how true that statement would be, or how wide our separation would become.
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