It was a beautiful winters day. The sky was wide and blue and unmarked by even the smallest trace of a cloud. The sun was warm and glinted off the snow left from the previous day’s storm. It was the sort of day that couldn’t be denied or put off. One of those rare warm mid-winter days that dragged you bodily from whatever task life had set before you, forced a smile on your lips and laugh in your eyes. It was the sort of day Olivia hated the most.
She huddled in the narrow crack she had claimed as her own and scowled at slashing sunlight muscling its way through the gaping timbers that passed for her walls. Olivia liked the sun as much as the next person during the long lazy days of summer, but in winter, that brilliant yellow face was anything but cheerful. It stared down at her, and those like her, with an intense sort of malice. She could practically hear it chanting from its hook in the sky: you can’t hide forever, little girl.
She hid from that malevolent face as long as she could, shifting her weight, moving an arm, bending a knee, avoiding any touch from those slow-moving beams, imagining if even one touched her it would mean her death that day. But the sun’s chant was right, she couldn’t hide forever, and as the sun climbed high into the sky her grumbling stomach finally forced her out of hiding.
Olivia traveled the rooftops as much as possible before jumping to the tops of the fences and stuck to the fences as long as she had one in front of her, her neck chain jangling as she hopped the gaps in between. The warmth of the day had melted the small mountains of snow the people of Barrowight had spent the previous months of winter piling high, the roadways and pathways of town now buried under feet of the sucking, heavy slush that was all that remained of the snow.
The city was alive with sound. Horses snorted, glad to be out of their stalls and feeling the sun once again on their skins, and their riders shouted and laughed, waving as they passed by friend and acquaintance and even foe – enemies could not remain such on such a glorious day as this! Their movements were smooth and unhurried, their trousers dry where hers clung to her wetly, their feet warm in the protective shell of their magic, where hers quickly became stiff with cold from constant contact with the melting ice and snow. She fingered the gold chain about her neck once again and felt a flare of hatred so deep, so overpowering, she felt as if her body might split right up the middle, spilling her steaming guts out onto the road beneath her feet. She shoved the anger away. She’d not give them the satisfaction of seeing her thus.
Despite her best efforts she was drenched and shivering by the time she made it to the market, but wonder of wonders, the shopkeeps were uncommonly generous this day. They turned a blind eye to her stiff hands and sopping clothes. One even offered her a steaming cloth filled with freshly roasted meats – a delicacy so uncommon for the likes of her she couldn’t recall ever having had it before. It was the warmth of the sun, the release from what had been such a dreary winter, that moved them. They knew nothing of the suffering that golden globe foretold for the Collared among them. And why would they? Why should they?
Despite the generosity of the market, the sun was sinking low in the sky by the time her belly was full. The sun, so full and warm just moments before, pulled its heat back to itself and left the mushy snow and rivers of meltwater below to freeze solid once again. Olivia hurried now. Her clothes stiffened as the moisture within them turned to ice. Her fingers and feet had gone numb long since, but she could feel her joints stiffening now. If she didn’t reach her destination soon she’d never be able to make the climb back to the warm crack beneath an overhanging roof. Her breath steamed in front of her with each exhale and it looked to her like the breath of death snorting just in front of her.
She came around the corner and skittered to a halt. She knew she should hurry, knew the cold would intensify beyond her body’s ability to cope once the last of the sunlight leached from the sky. But instead of moving she felt her mouth gape open, her feet root into the quickly freezing slush. In front of her was an open carriage carrying two women and two children, a young boy and a young girl. The children laughed as they licked at frozen treats within the warm glow of the spelled carriage, their faces flushed with warmth and the excitement of the day. One of the women chuckled as she helped the other one climb into the carriage, both aglow with the magic that held the freezing cold at bay.
She was less than twenty feet away, if any one of them were to look up they would see her. Their daughter, their sister. But would they recognize her? Of course, they would, Olivia chided herself. No matter what custom dictated, mothers would recognize their eldest daughter. The question was whether they would acknowledge that recognition.
Olivia watched as her family, the women who had birthed her, the siblings she had helped raise, vanished into the night. Only after the warmth of their magic had been swallowed in darkness did she realize she had fallen to her knees in the freezing slush. A part of her mind was screaming at her to stand up, to move, to live. But she stayed as she was, staring at that point at which the winter night had swallowed her family, and thought of the malevolent face of the sun on a warm winters day.