It was already fully dark when Tip arrived back at the Crib. As she’d suspected, it had been easy enough to climb back up the tunnel out of the cave with the lake. She’d had to brace herself against the sides in a few places to stop herself slipping back down, but it was simple stuff for a girl who’d been climbing the sides of buildings since she’d been able to walk.
She’d felt regret at leaving the lake behind. It was like having to give up a wonderful secret she’d only just discovered, but she promised herself she’d be back before too many hours had passed.
When she emerged from the tunnel, the mountainside was quiet, with no sight or sound of the men who’d been chasing her. Presumably they’d been unable to find her and had given up. The second option was that they’d gone back to the settlement to look for her there. With this in mind, she was extra careful to stay out of sight on her journey back.
The Crib’s back door swung silently open at her touch. She peeked inside to find that the orphanage was in a state of commotion. Marit’s rough voice was shouting commands from one of the front rooms and there was the patter of children’s footsteps running up and down the stairs. Something was definitely going on and there was an 80% chance it was something bad. She left the back door ajar and sidled into the hall to listen further.
“There you are!” said a voice, and Tip started as a hand grabbed her arm and swung her around. It was Valerian. At fifteen, Val was two years younger than Tip, but had already grown several inches taller than Tip’s small stature. Her brows were drawn into a worried frown. “Tip, where have you been?” she exclaimed. “We’ve had no word from you and Marit’s going nuts. Did you make it? Did you get anything?” Valerian’s hair was tucked away under a tattered scarf that was wound around her head. Her usually flawless face was smudged with dirt. That was a bad sign. In the normal way of things, the chances of Val letting anything approaching dirt touch her face were close to zero. If she was hiding her beautiful features away, there could only be one reason for it.
The monitors were coming.
Tip ignored Val’s questions and jumped straight to the point. “How long have we got?”
Val winced. “Kerrick says five minutes, but I think-“
A pounding at the Crib’s front door broke off her words.
Val’s eyes widened and she abruptly pulled Tip into the pantry. “Stay here,” she hissed. “I’ll get Marit to stall them. Oh Tip how did you get yourself into such a state?!” She didn’t wait for an answer but ran off, slamming the door of the pantry behind her.
Tip pressed her ear to the thick wood. The pounding on the front door came again and there was Marit calling that she was a crippled old woman and that they were to have patience.
The ‘crippled’ part was highly exaggerated, but Marit always pretended to be frail and doddering when it came to the monitors. She believed it to be prudent for them to underestimate her mental and physical abilities. Kerrick had argued that it was only prudent up until the point that the monitors decided she was unfit to be in charge of the settlement’s orphaned children and replaced her. But Marit always retorted that she owned the Crib and they could hardly turn her out of her own house. If she chose to take in stray children that no-one else was looking after, that was her business. “I’d like to see any of them taking on the burden of looking after the lot of you,” she’d cackled.
Tip jumped away from the pantry door as it opened, but it was only Val returning with several younger helpers in tow. They bore a bowl of water and several armfuls of rags. “You could have at least got out of those filthy clothes!” Val exclaimed.
“And be naked in front of the monitors?” retorted Tip. “No thanks!”
“Take them off, you idiot!” Val briskly pulled Tip’s shirt over her head while giving instructions to her helpers. “Fen, unlace her boots. Hallie and Rose, you wipe her arms and hands, be sure to get under the fingernails. Sanna, take the comb and try and do something with her hair!” As the others got to work, Val took a rag, dipped it in the water and began dabbing at Tip’s face.
“It’s cold!” protested Tip. She was feeling a little like a dressmaker’s dummy with so many people working on her at once. Val might have been younger but she was bossy enough to have been everyone’s mother.
“We hardly had time to warm the water for you,” said Val, scrubbing roughly at a stubborn smudge on Tip’s temple. “Be glad I didn’t throw you under the water pump.” She finished wiping Tip’s face and began applying powder with a small brush. “You’re so shiny and flushed you’re practically glowing in the dark,” she commented. “We need you pale and sleepy. You’ve been here all evening and you were getting ready for bed. Wasn’t she?” she directed at her helpers.
“Tip was here all evening,” they chorused obediently.
Marit’s stalling tactics had obviously run dry and they could hear loud male voices and the stomping of boots in the front rooms. They had cleaned Tip up as best they could, and now Valerian and the others helped her into clean, dry clothes and a pair of soft house shoes. Her boots and dirty clothes were shoved into the largest cooking pot, then they all scrambled to get to the parlour and line up for inspection the way the monitors always insisted.
The clothes Val had brought for Tip weren’t her own. They were far cleaner and nicer than anything she owned. Also, they were too long in the sleeves. She hastily rolled up the sleeves to her elbows to hide that fact, and then did her best to amble along blearily as if she’d been disturbed from a nap.
In the parlour were two monitors and several guards. Marit was more hunched than usual, grasping her cane and muttering to herself about being disturbed so late at night and it not being good for the children. The monitors were ignoring her.
“Is that all of them?” asked the taller monitor once the Crib’s seventeen resident orphans were assembled in rows. “Check all the faces. We’re looking for an older boy. Probably dirty and sweaty from running around on the mountain.” At his wave of the hand, the guards spread out and began shining their lamps into all of the faces.
“What about this one?” asked one of the guards, jerking his head at Kerrick, who was standing next to Marit.
“Can’t be him,” grunted the shorter monitor. “He’s lame.”
‘Kerrick’s a good boy!” exclaimed Marit. “Great help to me he is. He’s not the one leading your lads a merry chase up and down the mountains.”
“Be quiet, old woman,” snapped the tall monitor.
One of the guards had reached Tip and was shining his lamp in her face. “Got an older boy here.”
“I’m not a stinking boy!” exclaimed Tip, forgetting to sound sleepy. She fell silent again as the monitors came over to inspect her.
“How old is this one?” the taller monitor asked of Marit.
“I’m fifteen,” said Tip, eyes on the floor.
“She’s fifteen,” repeated Marit. It was the monitors’ practice to remove children from the orphanage once they turned sixteen. Boys went to work in the mine or foundry. Girls, if they were lucky, were set to work in the kitchens or infirmary. If they weren’t lucky, they were sent to be “workers” at the settlement’s only tavern, which was a nice way of saying they became prostitutes. So far as career prospects went, all of the options were terrible. Accordingly, Marit had adopted the practice of lying about the orphans’ ages for as long as they could get away with it. Tip was short enough to have got away with it this long, and she intended to keep doing it for as long as she could.
“And have you been here the whole evening?” the tall monitor asked Tip.
“Yes I have,” she said, daring to meet his eye. “Ask anyone.”
“Tip and I were playing ludo, but she cheats,” said Val from the row behind.
The shorter monitor waddled over to Val and shone a lamp in her face. He obviously liked what he saw. “How old is this one?” he asked. “Looks about ready to join the tavern workers if you ask me.”
Val’s eyes went scared and she dropped her gaze to the floor, remaining silent.
“She’s fourteen,” said Marit, brows drawn together on her craggy face.
“Too young then,” said the tall monitor. “Pity.”
“We could take her anyway,” smirked the shorter monitor, still eyeing Valerian. “She could just live with the tavern girls for a while. Get settled in, like, before it’s time for her to start working. Do her good to have some real female company.”
“She’s fine here,” exclaimed Tip hotly. “You don’t have the right to take any of us before we’re of age!”
The nearest guard gave her a cuff to the back of the head, knocking her to the floor. “Be respectful,” he growled.
The other orphans gasped in horror. Kerrick took a step forward, but Marit caught his arm shaking her head slightly.
Tip got back on her feet, rubbing her head sullenly. The taller monitor was still standing before her. “You certainly don’t seem suited for tavern work,” he mused, his tone all the more dangerous for its mildness. “Perhaps I’ll send you into the mines when you come of age. You’re small enough to be useful down there.”
Tip kept her gaze down and bit her tongue to keep from blurting out a retort that would 100% make things worse.
The monitor inspected her for a few more seconds, then abruptly turned his gaze to Marit. “I bring news from the settlement council,” he said. “Rations to this house are to be cut in half.”
Tip’s mouth dropped open. All the orphans exclaimed in dismay.
“What?” exclaimed Marit sharply. “We’re stretched thin enough as it is! There are nigh on twenty of us living in this house. You can’t send only enough for ten and expect everyone to survive.”
“I assure you, good madam, this announcement is not of my making.” The tall monitor was obviously enjoying the effect the news was having on his audience. “As I am certain you are aware, resources here in Grevick Mining Colony are currently rather stretched. It has been decided that priority must be given to those in the workforce. With that in mind, if some of the older children,” He cast meaningful glances at Val and Tip, “were to volunteer for work a little before their designated time, that would be advantageous to both them and to you. I am sure reducing the number of children you care for would ease matters here considerably.”
“Start work early. Do them good.” The shorter monitor nodded in agreement.
“Come dear colleagues.” The taller monitor swept towards the hallway. “It seems we will not find the culprit here, but I feel we merit some refreshment. Let us see what we may find in the kitchens.”
- Graz, Austria
I write fantasy and humorous tales with a twist of magic. I'm currently working on a full-length manuscript but somehow I'm never satisfied with a single project so my smaller works get posted here. If you like what you read, the completed stories are also available to download as ebooks from my website: victoriakellywrites.com
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