“You are lowborn and will never amount to anything!”
The words stung worse than the lash that sometimes crossed Justyn’s back, a demoralizing combination of truth and fear. Truth that, yes, he was born the lowest of the low, the son of a barmaid so wedded to her cups she couldn’t keep a job for more than a few days at a time. And the fear that, yes, his dreams of escaping this hellhole were no more real than the nightmares that plagued his sleep.
The bitch who tormented him was beautifully christened Guinevie Goode, but in the orphanage she was called Cold Crone behind her back. Pretty is as pretty does, they say, and there was nothing pretty about Cold Crone’s visage or disposition. While she was hard on all the children in her tender care, she always saved an extra helping of harsh for Justyn. Likely because she’d been forced to take him in by Sheriff Uric despite the fact that he still had his mother around, as wretched as she was. And quite likely had a father around, though none of the many who’d been in and out of his mother’s bed over the years had ever stepped up to claim him.
Cold Crone knelt down and picked up the dust-a-wil he’d missed in the back corner of the common room. She held it out to him as if it were evidence of some heinous crime. “I don’t ask much from you ragamuffins in exchange for keeping you fed, clothed, and warm. Keeping your home tidy is the least you can do! Did you leave this filth here just to spite me?”
“No, Miss Goode,” Justyn murmured, eyes riveted to his shoes.
“Nooo, Missss Goooooode,” she hissed back. She flicked the dust-a-wil from her fingers and he watched it drift to the ground. “You will sweep out the common room again, and then you will scrub the floors with soap and hot water. If I find any more of this filth after that, you will get the lash.” The thought of raising welts across his back brought a glow to her eyes as she scuttled from the room.
Justyn waited a few moments after the door closed before releasing the breath he’d been holding. It was a little depressing having to spend the next couple hours cleaning floors here while the other kids were doing their chores outside in the sun, but he was glad to have a little peace and quiet alone. Most of the other kids resented the fact that Justyn had actual living parents, whether or not he actually ever saw them.
There was a quiet knock on the door, and Justyn felt the cold flush of fear wash over him as he cast his eyes quickly down. But it wasn’t Cold Crone’s cruelly pointed boots he saw entering the room, but rather the blackened bare feet of an orphan… feet he knew pretty well actually. When they ran races for fun her feet were always ahead of him.
“Hi Kitt!” he called, feeling his despair thawing a bit. Kittina was one of the few kids in the orphanage who had offered him friendship when the Sheriff had first brought him, and that friendship was a lifeline he’d clutched through the sea of misery and bleakness that otherwise occupied his hours.
“Are you okay? Did she hit you?” she asked, closing the door quietly behind her. Kitt knew she wasn’t supposed to be in here, and was actually taking quite the risk if her absence outside was noted. She crossed over to him, took his hand, and he could see the concern in her blue eyes.
Beautiful, sky blue eyes… and her long, straight golden hair brightened the room like the sunshine he was missing… Justyn felt a flutter in his chest and a heat rising to his cheeks. Kitt was a little younger than he, but recently the first bloom of womanhood had begun to transform his friend into something with small but distracting curves where there had only been straight lines and angles before. The touch of her skin seemed to rob him of coherent thought, so Justyn reluctantly pulled his hand away and replaced it with a smile.
“Still got that knife on you?” he asked. She grinned and reached into the folds of her skirt, pulling the small blade from a secret pocket she’d sewed into it. “If you help me clean this place up, we’ll have time for some fun!”
* * *
The other children had finished their chores and were rewarded with some “play time” that consisted mostly of just not having to work. The garden and laundry took up most of the fenced-in yard, but there were trees and bugs, and a few sad half-broken toys for which children’s imagination could create endless amusements to pass the time. Cold Crone claimed to be keeping a watchful eye from her bedroom window up on the second story, but all the children knew that “play time” was just her time to sleep away the headaches that plagued the woman. If the children were relatively quiet, they would have two or three hours freedom from her stifling tyranny.
Cleaning the common room had left Justyn and Kitt’s hands raw, but they’d been able to finish up and then sneak out into the yard and hide behind the farthest trees with their small ill-gotten gains. Justyn pulled out his tin covered-mug which had just the right amount of water in it. Kitt dumped in the soap shavings and stirred it with her finger. “Not too much,” Justyn warned. She pulled out her finger and flicked the soap water into his face, sticking her tongue at him.
“Hey!” he cried. “You could get it in my eyes!” Her smile disappeared at the thought; the soap was harsh and it would burn like fire. When it was clear he wasn’t blinded, she punched him in the arm.
“Don’t be such a baby!”
Justyn took one of the bristles they’d liberated from the broom and began to twist it around. His fingers were long and nimble, and it didn’t take long to fashion the bristle into the shape he wanted. He handed it to her and she started to dip it into the soapy water. “Wait!” he hissed, and she stuck her tongue out again.
He nodded once he was done making his and she dipped hers in, pulling it out slowly and then pausing for him to do the same. They held each to their lips and gently blew… his bubble wasn’t even half-formed when it burst, but Kitt got hers on the first try, the bubble releasing and floating slowly away. He lightly elbowed her in the ribs but they both watched it drift up before running into a tree branch and bursting.
They dipped in again, and again Justyn’s bubble burst while Kitt’s bounced into the air, this time ducking the tree branch and catching a slight breeze that lifted it over the high fence to freedom. The two sighed simultaneously as their wishes floated within the bubble.
“I think something must be wrong with this,” Justyn said, inspecting the bristle closely.
“I think you blow too hard,” Kitt giggled. “You need to be gentle, like this.” She turned her face to his and pursed her lips, and he could feel her breath on his cheek. His heart fluttered in his chest again and he suddenly felt very warm. Her lips turned into a small smile and there was a mischievous glint in her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Did she know? Did she realize what she did to him, this maddening new layer to their friendship?
“It’s your breath,” he said, making a choking sound. Outraged, she punched him in the shoulder. “Shit! Ow!” he cried. Then they both burst into giggles.
When their laughter subsided, she put her hand on his arm. “Seriously though… try again, a little more gently.”
Justyn wrestled to put her closeness, her touch, the memory of her breath on his cheek from his mind, to slow his heartbeat and breath down enough to actually try and do as she asked. Somehow he did it… and was rewarded by the soap bubble holding itself together and detaching from the bristle. They watched it float up, duck the low-hanging branch and begin to follow Kitt’s escapee over the fence…
“Ha!” Suddenly one of the other boys pounced from around another tree and lanced the bubble with his outstretched finger, as if a knight spearing a prize ring at the Faire. He was tall for his age, and carried much more weight than even his large frame could reasonably handle, but he used his bulk to bully most of the other kids into submission. His face, scarred from childhood pox and a recent outbreak of acne, was twisted in a sneer of triumph. He’d been given the name Buck when he’d been left at Cold Crone’s door as an infant, but due to his hygiene issues most of the children called him something quite different behind his back.
“Stank!” Kitt shrieked, leaping to her feet with enviable nimbleness. She closed with Stank just as fast and unleashed a flurry of blows against his chest and arms. Her small but hard fists no doubt hurt the big kid, but his bulk kept her from driving him more than a step or two backward. The assault had come so fast and unexpected that it took a few moments for him to process that someone was hitting him, and that same someone had also called him by that infuriating nickname.
“Bitch!” he bellowed, and swung a meaty fist at her face. She managed to mostly duck under the swing, but he clipped her forehead, leaving her stunned for just a split-second… but it was enough time for his other fist to connect with her right eye. Kitt let out a shriek and crumpled to the ground.
Stank let out a roar as he stood over this horrid creature who had broken his rules. He briefly thought about kicking her in the ribs, but he could see that Justyn had slowly stood up. “You want some of this?” he barked.
“You want some of this?” Justyn replied, stepping forward and throwing the harsh soap water he’d been careful not to spill into Stank’s face. Stank’s shrieks of pain confirmed that Justyn had scored a bulls-eye on the boy’s eyes, and as he collapsed to the ground screaming and covering his face, Justyn looked up and saw the entire yard staring at him. Most of the kids were slack-jawed and shocked at the affrontery of attacking Stank, but a few of them dared to let smiles peek across their faces. A couple even nodded at him.
Justyn rushed over to Kitt. Her right eye and cheek were red and already starting to swell. “Are you alright?” he asked, his heart stopping in his chest. She smiled, and her good eye met his. She reached up and cupped his cheek with her hand.
“My hero,” she whispered, delightful lyrics to the chorus of Stank’s misery beside them. Then she focused on something behind Justyn and her smile faded. “Oh, shit.”
Justyn looked over his shoulder, at the other kids still staring at him… and then looked up, realizing with a blooming sick feeling in his gut that Cold Crone was in her window, staring down at him, one hand to her forehead, and the other outstretched against the glass as if she could reach down there and strangle him where he was.