The Sweetest SpellSuzanne Selfors
Part One: Dirt-Scratcher Girl
Part Two: Dairyman’s Son
Part Three: Milkmaid
Part Four: Peddler Man
Part Five: Daughter
Part Six: Soldier
Part Seven: Queen
Part Eight: Prince
Chapter Fourty Five
Part Nine: Emmeline
Chapter Fifty Five
Also by Suzanne Selfors
I was born a dirt-scratcher’s daughter.
I had no say in the matter. No one asked, “Wouldn’t you rather be born to a cobbler or a bard? How about a nobleman or a king? Are you certain that dirt-scratching is the right job for you?”
If someone had asked, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have answered, “My heart is set on being a dirt-scratcher. I’m really looking forward to a life soured by hunger, backbreaking work, and ignorance. That sounds delightful. Sign me up.”
Oh, and I’m absolutely certain I wouldn’t have added, “Could you also give me some sort of deformity? Just to make things interesting.”
The midwife told me the full story of my birth, as much as she could remember. She said nothing out of the ordinary happened that evening. No blinding star appeared on the horizon, the world wasn’t darkened by an eclipse, time didn’t stand still—the sort of thing that heralds the birth of someone really important. But the midwife boiled the water and counted the beats between my mother’s screams, and after I’d been pushed from the womb, the midwife wrapped me in a rag and carried me outside.
“She’s no good,” the midwife told my father.
“No good?” My father bowed his head and stared at the cracked leather of his boots.
“She’s not a keeper.” The midwife didn’t hesitate. In this time and place, decisions of life and death had to be made. “You must cast her aside, Murl Thistle.”
My father ran his callused hand over his face as if trying to wipe away the truth.
“She’s got a curled foot,” the midwife whispered. She’d whisked me out of the cottage before my exhausted mother could catch a glimpse of me.
Reaching ever so hesitantly, my father slowly peeled back the stained rag. Peering at my misshapen foot, sadness settled in his eyes. Learning your babe is not a keeper has to be the worst feeling in the world. He’d seen the deformity before and it sealed my fate. A dirt-scratcher’s daughter needed two strong feet. A curled foot would slow me down, would keep me from doing my fair share of work in the fields. I would be a burden, a gaping mouth to feed. I would never earn enough coin to buy myself a husband. No man would want me.
“Go tell your wife the babe was stillborn.” The midwife’s tone was matter-of-fact, for she’d learned that it was always best to lie to the mother. A mother, once she’s laid eyes on her child, will always beg to keep it despite its defects. “I will take her to the forest, Murl Thistle.”
A quiet sound, like a wood dove’s coo, floated from my mouth. My father didn’t look at my face. Perhaps he figured that if he looked into my eyes, he would see that they were exactly like his eyes, and he’d want to claim me as his own. My father didn’t hold me. Perhaps he knew that if he felt the warmth that ebbed from my tiny body and if he felt the beating of my heart, I would become a keeper. I would become his daughter.
He turned away. “Do what you must,” he said. “I will tell my wife.” Then, with heavy footsteps, as if his legs were felled trees, he stepped into the cottage and closed the door.
My mother’s sobs seeped between the cottage stones as the midwife carried me away. The sun was setting, and she wanted to get some distance between the cottage and my fate. She didn’t want my parents to hear me cry out. Nor did she want them to accidently stumble upon my tiny bones one day.
Toward the forest the midwife hurried, keeping between the ruts worn into the road by the dirt-scratchers’ carts. The day’s heat was fading, but I was as warm as a stone taken from a fire. Images flooded the midwife’s mind of her own warm children tucked beside her at night. She pushed those images away as she passed the first tilled field, then the next. I wiggled in her arms but she offered no soothing words—what would be the point? Death was coming. In the best of circumstances it would be swift and merciful.
She turned off the road and started across a meadow, her skirt swooshing through tall grass. The forest hugged the edge of the field like a dark curtain, hiding the creatures that lived within its depths. The midwife stopped. She didn’t dare go closer. She gently set me on the ground. The predators would come. They always did. And it would be as if I’d never been born.
Finding a clean spot on her bloodied apron, the midwife wiped sweat from her neck. Twilight would soon caress the sky and she needed to get home. She slid the rag free, exposing me so my scent would mix with the evening breeze. A brief twinge of pity pulled at her but she stopped herself from looking into my eyes. Pity wouldn’t help me.
The rag tucked under her arm, she left me to my fate. That was the end of her story.
The milkman told how he’d found me the next morning. But the in-between comes from my remembering. I know it sounds strange that a newborn babe could remember, but I do. I swear I do. To this day, it’s the brightest memory I have.
Four brown milk cows, having grazed in the field for most of the day, were on their way back to their barn when they caught my scent in the air. Usually wary of the forest’s edge, they moseyed up to me, their tails flicking with curiosity. Ignoring their instinct to return home, they stood over me, even as twilight descended. Even as the predators began to stir.
And so it was that four pairs of large, brown eyes were the first to look directly at me, and I met their gazes with an unblinking fascination. Four pairs of eyes, framed with thick lashe
s, were the first to acknowledge me, and I cooed with appreciation. One cow gently nudged me from side to side while the others licked me clean. As night crept into the meadow, the cows settled in the grass, forming a protective circle. The ground absorbed their heat the way it had absorbed the sun’s heat, and warmth spread beneath me. I found a nipple and warmth spread throughout my little body.
And I, the babe who’d been cast aside, lived.
The only thing on my mind that morning was the upcoming husband market. It never failed to be the most exciting day of the year, promising passion, heartbreak, comedy, even murder. Aye, murder, because on a few occasions, disappointed women had turned on the highest bidder. Nothing else could compare to the husband market for sheer entertainment. My head swirled with excitement. That’s why I didn’t notice the cows until Father said something.
“Those creatures are at the window again.”
It wasn’t a fancy window for it had no glass, but it was a hole in the side of our cottage and I’d drawn the ragged curtain aside to let in some fresh air. Clearly the cows thought this was an invitation, for they stuck their noses through the hole and flared their wet nostrils. One white-faced, the other brown, they snorted for attention.
“I’ll take them back,” I said, scraping the last mouthful of mashed potato from my bowl. When the cows showed up, which they did now and then, I always walked them home. It was the only way to get them to leave. They’d come to see me, after all.
After licking my spoon clean, I pushed back my stool and waited for Father’s permission.
“Go on then,” he grumbled, hunching over his bowl. His sharp shoulders pressed at the seams of his threadbare shirt. I hoped he’d look up and offer a reassuring nod, but he didn’t. He rarely looked directly at me. But I’d caught him a few times, staring as I stumbled across the field, sadness dripping off him like rain.
Everyone in the village of Root knew that my father had rejected me at birth. But he’d simply done what any other dirt-scratcher would have done. Food and shelter were precious and not to be wasted on those who couldn’t contribute. This was the way of my people. Over the generations, countless deformed babes had been fed to the forest. When the milkman found me, he knew I was Murl Thistle’s babe because my mother was the only woman who’d gone into labor that week. The villagers said my survival was a bad omen. Some kind of black magic had influenced the cows. It was unnatural. I was unnatural. That’s why villagers always kept a wary distance.
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” I said, pulling my shawl from its peg. There were kitchen chores to get to. Socks to wash. A donkey’s stall to be mucked out. The sun never stayed around long enough for all the work to get done. The precious time it would take for me to walk the cows back to the milkman’s land was sacrificed because my father didn’t want to face the milkman’s temper.
“I got no time to chase after my cows,” the milkman had hollered at my father one day. “They stray, Murl Thistle, because that daughter of yours has unnatural power over them. If she doesn’t bring them back, I’ll complain to the tax-collector!”
As I hurried from the cottage, the white-faced cow stepped away from the window and greeted me with a soft moo.
“Hello,” I answered. The cow dipped her head and I kissed her wide brow. She smelled like grass and dirt and wind. I’d known this cow my entire life, and though the milkman never named his cows, I secretly called her Snow. Snow was the only cow left of the original four that had saved me.
A nudge to my elbow drew my attention to the other cow, Snow’s daughter. “Hello,” I said, running my hand down her back. Five more cows, brown as freshly hoed dirt, waited on the road just below our cottage. “Oh, you brought your friends.” I wrapped the shawl around my shoulders. “Well, I’d best get you home. The milkman will be missing you.”
Planting season had come to the village of Root. Having finished their noon meal, villagers were at work sprinkling seed into furrows and setting potato tubers into holes. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old—if you breathed and you lived here, you worked the fields. This part of Anglund’s kingdom was called the Flatlands, a wide valley wedged between River Time and the Gray Mountains. My ancestors, the red-haired Kell, came to the Kingdom of Anglund as invaders many generations ago but were brutally defeated. The Queen of Anglund took pity on the survivors, mostly women and children. Though we were forbidden to ever again call ourselves Kell, or make or carry weapons, we were given the right to farm the Flatlands. Honestly, no one else wanted the land, which is parched in the summer and soggy in the winter. But after a single generation, the villages of Root, Seed, and Furrow arose, and we have lived there ever since.
No one stared at me as I hobbled down the road. They’d gotten used to the sight of me leading the cows, just as they’d gotten used to the strange way I walked, my right side dipping with each step of my right foot. I walked that way because my right foot was shrunken and curved inward so that I bore my weight on its side. A long trek, such as the distance between my father’s cottage and the milkman’s land, was difficult and painful. But the cows never seemed to mind my slow pace.
My thoughts drifted to tomorrow’s husband market. The boys who’d turned eighteen since the last husband market would be up for bid, joined by the men who had yet to find wives or who had been widowed. Flatlander girls saved all their coins for the occasion. The highest bidder got the best husband. Usually.
There was no law forcing a girl to marry, but most did. A husband provided a house. A husband meant that a girl was no longer a child and could speak for herself. A husband meant other things too—things I’d heard girls whisper about.
Everyone knew my fate was to remain unmarried, thanks to my unnatural status. I suppose, out of desperation, I could bid on an “unwanted.” The unwanteds were the men who rarely got bids, usually because they had frightful tempers or because they had a flock of nasty, bad-mannered children from previous marriages. Or because they were hideous.
No thank you.
The cows’ hooves clomped along the road. Soft clouds drifted lazily over the fields. Two robins circled each other in a spring dance of love. I could pretend that my pride would keep me from bidding on an unwanted, but the truth was this—I was also an unwanted.
The pain began at the next bend in the road. It started in my curled foot, then shot up the outside of my leg. It would worsen throughout the afternoon as I followed Father around the field, dropping the potato tubers into the holes he’d dug. I fought the urge to slow down, maybe take a rest beside the river. Daylight was precious. Father needed my help. We had a lot to get done if we wanted to take tomorrow off for the husband market.
No way was I going to miss it. Not this year. Not with Root’s most popular boy stepping onto that stage. Every girl in the village of Root dreamed of marrying Griffin Boar.
And that’s why I gasped when he appeared around the bend.
Who was this boy who consumed the thoughts of the village girls?
Griffin Boar was the milkman’s only son. Because the Boars were rich by Flatlander measure, Griffin’s future wife would never want for food. She’d never want for shelter either, because for the past three years, Griffin had been building a cottage. Girls often gathered at the river’s edge to watch the progress as, shirtless, he stripped the bark off timbers and set them into place. Other young men were building their cottages, but Griffin’s effort drew the most attention. His cottage was double the size of anyone else’s.
This would have been enough to explain his popularity. But Griffin Boar had more going for him than security.
He was beautiful.
Even after casting aside the deformed babies, most Flatlanders didn’t make it to the age of eighteen without some sort of disfigurement—a crooked nose from a break, an arm scarred from a burn, cheeks pockmarked by disease. Missing teeth, split lips, boils, and bruises were the markings
of village life. But somehow Griffin had been spared.
And that is why so much female time in the village of Root was spent thinking about Griffin Boar. Security and beauty came along once in a generation, if at all.
Griffin didn’t notice me as he appeared around the bend, his horse cantering at a steady pace. One hand on the reins, the other hand holding a small mirror, Griffin stared, transfixed by his own reflection, his red locks bouncing at his shoulders. I froze as the horse headed straight at me and the cows. Surely it would veer around us. Surely Griffin would look up in time. Oblivious, he held the mirror closer and inspected his smile. He smiled with teeth, then without teeth. Then with teeth again.
“Watch out!” I cried, trying to limp out of the way. The horse neighed as it skidded to a stop. Griffin looked up just before he flew over the horse’s head and landed on the road, right between two cows.
I stumbled, then caught my balance. Holding my breath, I stared at Griffin. He wasn’t moving. Was he dead? Was the most beautiful boy in Root Village dead? I reached cautiously, my fingers floating just above his shoulder. “Hello? Are you … hurt?”