Chapter 05 – The Lunch and The Question

‘I hope you were satisfied with your room’ Emma asked. ‘Yes, very much so, thank you.’ I said a little stiff, and Lilly nodded. ‘You got your own room?’ Julia asked me with huge eyes. ‘What does it look like? Is it pretty? How big it is? If it looks anything like the rest of the house, it must be amazing! While saying that she had been moving so widely that she spilled half of her water on the ground. ‘Julia!’ Lilly said strict. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ Julia looked at her spilled water on the floor and was already on her way out of the chair when Emma stopped her. ‘No, that’s okay, please let me do it.’ She got a towel out of her dress and started mopping it up.

She was only halfway done when the door behind me opened again and two people came in: Ida and the older woman who had introduced herself as Madame Norris early today. Their arms were loaded with silver trays and plates with freshly prepared food. I was just wondering how they were able to carry that much when I felt my mind wonder or to Ida again. I quickly closed my eyes for a second. “No!” I told myself. “No, I have to keep focussed. We have to be careful.” When I opened my eyes again I tried to look at her as little as possible while she and Madame Norris set the table for us. Julia’s eyes looked as if they were going to fall out while she stared at all the foods. I could imagine her having an internal battle with herself on what she was going to eat first. Lilly’s eyes, who normally couldn’t be kept of any kind of food, seemed to be glued to Ida again. For a second I wondered if Ida might have some mystical powers which made as act and feel the way we did. But when I saw Julia again, who had halfway come up out of her seat to have a good overview of all the food, I realized how stupid that idea was.

‘Please, take as much as you like.’ Madame Norris said when they had put everything in place. The three house residents took a few steps back and until their backs where almost against the wall. Julia had already started to load her plate with all that she could, and it seemed like Lilly had finally realized that she was staring again because she suddenly seemed very interested in the food while she scanned the table. I felt a little uncomfortable with the three women standing there, looking at us while we ate. Maybe Lilly thought the same because she suddenly said ‘Aren’t you going to join us?’ I saw her eyes flash over Ida again shortly before she stared at her plate again.

I caught a slight whim of the smell of the food and suddenly realized I actually was kind of in need of some food. I started to scan the table and load my plate. Madame Norris had come forwards again and smiled. ‘No miss, but thank you for the invitation,’ she said to Lilly who was still trying hard to concentrate on the food and her empty plate. ‘As Emma might have told you before, House Howard also provides education. A part of that education is learning how to be a good host but also a good servant to the Lords and Ladies and guests. Seeing as you are our only current guests here at the moment, I thought this would be a good learning opportunity for some of the girls.’ ‘But why does that mean you can’t eat with us?’ Julia said with a mouth half full with egg salad. ‘Because a good servant doesn’t eat with their Ladies or Lords or guest, but stands back and watches for when they might be needed again. And a good guest,’ I followed up while I poked my silver fork into a section of salmon filled sandwich I just cut, ‘never talks while they’re mouth is still filled with food.’ I put the fork in my mouth and smiled at her. Julia’s cheeks flushed a little and she quickly chewed and swallowed. Emma laughed and quickly tried to disguise it as a cough when she saw Madame Norris looking over her shoulder at her. ‘That’s correct.’ Madame Norrissaid smiling.

‘How did you know that?’ Julia asked me. I made a humming sound while I quickly chewed and swallowed my food. ‘I, err, I read it somewhere.’ I lied. Julia frowned and had already opened her mouth again to say something when I felt Lilly move under the table. Julia managed to convert her gasp of pain from Lilly’s kick into a cough quite convincingly and apparently neither the two girl nor Madame Norris had noticed. Julia took another cheese and cucumber sandwich while disregarding her silverware and started to eat again while holding the sandwich. Lilly was finally chewing something as well, and although her jaws seemed to move at quite a pace, she seemed unable to swallow any of it. Maybe she didn’t like it. But when had I ever seen Lilly in a situation where she didn’t like food?

Before I had any time to remember if any such thing had ever happened, Madame Norris started talking again. ‘I do not want to keep you from your meals, but now you’re here all together, I was wondering if I might ask you a few short questions.’ She seemed to feel uneasy with the fact that she was talking and asking us things while we were eating. This made me wonder why she did it anyway. I looked at Julia who shrugged her shoulders with her mouth still full and her sandwich still in her hands. Lilly looked at her plate and frowned. ‘Please,’ I said with my most sugar coated voice, ‘anything you want to know. After all you’ve done for us, that’s the least we could repay you with.’ I tried to smile as innocently as possible. I prayed that Julia would keep on eating so that she wouldn’t be able to say anything and that after Lilly’s kick she wouldn’t try to correct anything I said anymore. Lilly didn’t seem to feel anything for saying something at all. I had a cleared pathway.

Madame Norris smiled again. ‘Thank you. We take pleasure in our service for you.’ she scraped her throat and seemed to get uneasy again. ‘I once again apologize for asking, because I know the indecent nature of my question.’ She took a deep breath and seemed to have re-found herself because she straightened her back and asked ‘Where were you held up resident before your stay at House Howard, if I might ask?’

Chapter 04 – The Guest Room

When the door closed behind her I still didn’t move. I felt afraid to touch anything at all, and even breathing didn’t feel appropriate in this room. Every time I blinked I was afraid that the room would disappear before my eyes, and I would be back in the orphanage. Was this really real? My eyes started to get teary of not blinking. Slowly, I took a step forward. I reached out my hand and softly brushed it against the smooth fabric of the couch. If I felt it, it should mean that it was there. That it was real, right? I took a deep breath and sat down. It was real.

I sat there for a few minutes, breathing in and out as deep as I could. What had just happened? I tried to piece it all together. “So they were expecting me,” I thought to myself. “That could mean they were already informed about the missing children from the orphanage. And how, in God’s name, did they know about Lilly and Julia? They never said how they knew… Maybe they just saw us, when we went into the shed? And why on earth did they take me in? They didn’t have to. I can’t pay or give them anything in return. I know Emma said some stuff about being a school for girls, but still… This kind of house… With rich people…”

The more I though about it, the more I started to doubt the entire situation. I jumped up from the couch and started pacing round the room.

“Okay,” I said to myself, “okay let’s say this is all real and they are really just nice people. Then what? How long could we stay here? If they are really that nice, it wouldn’t hurt to stay a night. Then tomorrow, if it’s dry of course, we could maybe ask them for some food for the road. Would they give it to us? Maybe it was better not to ask. Okay, no, different approach. When it’s dry, we will wait ‘till nightfall and plunder the kitchen for as much food as we can. Maybe we should take some valuables with us, you know for when we really need money. We wouldn’t take much but just the necessary. It’s not like they’re barely scraping by or anything…” I scanned the room for small valuables which I could possibly take with me. A small silver candle holder on the top of the fireplace caught my attention. I walked up to it, picked it up and examined it. “I should take this anyway,” I thought to myself. “So maybe this was all just a scam, and they were alerting the cops right now. I should take this right away. Get as much as I can without being seen, take the girls and get out of here. The risk was to great. It would have been amazing if this was all good natured, but the risk of going back was to big.” I sighed. I knew that when we would be forced to go back, the Witch would take much joy out of torturing us before she’d sent us off to jail. “No, it’s to dangerous to stay. I have to get out of here. Immediately.”

I gripped the silver candle holder tightly and started to search the room for something I could carry it in. In a drawer next to the bed I found some clean sheets which I figured I could use to make a bag out of. I knotted the ends together and put the silver candle holder in the sheet-back. I didn’t expect anyone to be listening at the door but every movement I made, I tried to make as quiet as possible. I found there other silver candle holders, a small copper school for the fireplace, a loose silver knob in an empty drawer, and some silver brushes in the bathroom. I also decided to take the soap from the bathroom and to wrap every single item I found in a towel, sheet or cloth to make sure they wouldn’t make to much sound when I would carry them all in my bag. I filled up my bad with the stolen, wrapped items and decided to throw a few other towels on top, so it would look like I was just carrying a bag of clean towels. I didn’t wanted to attract any attention when we would reach the city.

I almost screamed it out when I heard a sudden, soft knock on the door. I had spent so much time searching the room and making the bag that I had totally forgotten about the time. ‘Miss?’ It wasn’t Emma’s voice. I luckily threw the bag under the bed, took place on the couch and tried to look as normal and innocent as possible. ‘Miss, can I come in?’ the voice asked. ‘Yes,’ I answered and I felt my heart pound in my chest. The door opened slowly and another new girl stood in the hallway. She had dark skin and a lot of dark curly hair that seemed to be standing in every direction. I had never seen a girl like that before. ‘Miss?’ the girl said after a few seconds. I suddenly realized that I had been staring, that with my mouth a little opened, and i quickly closed it. ‘Are you allright Miss?’ she asked hesitantly. I nodded ‘Yes, sorry, yes,’ I stood up, with my eyes still on her face. Her eyes were almond shaped and her skin looked soft. She seemed to be of Julia’s age, but she also could’ve been so much older and so much younger at the same time. She wore the same clothes as Emma had, but somehow it seemed to fit this girl better, and made it look prettier on her.

‘If you please would follow me to the dining room Miss? the girl said and she waved her hand graciously into the direction of the hallway. I nodded and quickly followed her out of the room. On our way to the dining room she didn’t say anything. Sometimes she’d wave her hand to indicate where we where going. Now and then I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She really had something enchanting about her, and I couldn’t imagine myself not feeling safe, loved and happy in her company. The feeling of distrust had left my mind and body completely and I even forgot about the knapsack with valuables waiting for me back in the room under the bed. The walk seemed way shorter than when I was brought to my room, even though I knew the distance we had walked was way further. The girl opened the door for me and led me into a beautiful dining room with large windows and hardwood furniture with a table that was already set. She pulled back one of the chairs ‘If you please Miss?’ She nodded to the chair. I sat down and looked around. There was no one else here yet, but that didn’t bother me. “Your friends will be here in just a moment. Would you like something to drink while you wait?’ the girl asked. I noticed that my throat felt dry and asked for a glass of water.

Just when she had filled my glass with a crystal water can, another door opened on my right hand side. The sound seemed to wake me from a nice dream, and I heard Emma before I saw her. ‘..room has already been set so when the food is brought in you can eat,’ Emma appeared through the open door followed by a happily smiling Julia who seemed to be dragging Lilly forward as she walked on. Lilly seemed not at all happy. I instantly knew that she was afraid of the same thing as me. ‘AVA!’ Julia cried out and ran over to me. Before I knew it she hugged me so tightly that I could barely breath. ‘I thought… And you.. Don’t ever.. Okay?’ I could barely make out the words Julia cried. I looked over her shoulder to see Lilly still standing next to a content looking Emma. ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ Julia said when she let go of me. ‘Yes,’ I stammered. ‘See!’ she said over her shoulder to Lilly. ‘I knew you would think that too, But Lilly said… Anyway, you know Lilly, she’s always so negative and… But anyway…’ Julia babbled. I looked at Lilly. Her jaw was sharp and she looked me intensely in the eye. I stared back for a second and knew I made my message clear when she took a step in my direction.

As Julia and Lilly came to sit with me at the table the beautiful dark skinned girl bowed and walked out of the room. ‘Ida will bring you your food in a moment. Would you like something to drink?’ Emma asked the girls. I had been watching Ida leave the room and quickly turned my head back to the company. Emma was already filling up Julia’s glass, whose bright smile seemed to cover her entire face. Lilly however was still looking at the door behind me in which Ida just disappeared. Apparently she had been as striken with Ida’s appearance as I was. Lilly finally stopped gazing when Emma tried to get her attention by impatiently but softly clinking the water can to her glass. ‘What? Oh, yes please.’ Lilly stammered. With some difficulty I tried to manage to refrain myself from laughing or smiling. There was no time for laughing or getting distracted. This was serious. Our lives and futures could be in danger right now. While Emma filled Lilly’s glass carefully, I tried to find Lilly’s leg with mine under the table. Because the table was so big and we sat so far apart from each other, I only managed to softly stroke my toes against hers. She looked at me. I looked back at her, then at Emma, frowned, then at the clock on the wall, and then at the door. We used to send each other these kinds of messages while we were still in the orphanage, and apparently we got quite good at because almost unnoticeable Lilly nodded.
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Chapter 03 – The Warm Welcome

The ground was very slippery and I had to be careful not to fall. The wet pebble ground didn’t make it any easier. I ran as fast as I could round the side of the house toward the front. When I finally got to the front door it felt like the rain had soaked me till the bone. Shivering from the cold rain I stood before the front door. I hesitated. Images of all the possible ways this could end flashed before my eyes. I closed my eyes, took a step forward and pounded with my fist upon the door. An hour or maybe a second later the door opened slowly. A girl with black crafty pinned up hair and a servants dress smiled at me.

‘We’ve been expecting you,’ the girl said still smiling. ‘Come in, come in. You must be cold.’ She took a step back to let me in. Full of confusion I stepped inside. The girl quickly closed the door behind me. The hall which I had just entered was nothing like I had ever seen before. The walls were double the height of normal ones and were decorated with beautiful paintings. Two beautiful marble staircases twisted their ways upwards to a balcony on the second floor.

‘If you please miss,’ the girl said and motioned that she wanted me to follow her. I followed her into a new room. It had a beautiful fire place and I could barely contain myself from jumping in front of it to warm myself. The girl turned to me again. She smiled.

‘If you could please wait here. I’ll be back in a moment.’ she said. I nodded. I looked at her as she left the room. As soon as she closed the door behind her I ran toward the fireplace. I put my hands out in front of me and kept them as close to the fire as I could bare. The warmth slowly seemed to embrace me. As soon as my hands and arms started to feel (alive) again I turned around to warm my back. I pulled up my knees and put my arms around them.

They had been expecting me. Why had they been expecting me? Had word gone out that we had gone missing? That we had escaped? Had news travelled that fast? But then again, we did stay in that shed for some days. Maybe they had sent out riders. Would they really do that for a few stupid orphan girls? Maybe they would. How else could they have been expecting me? What would they do to me? Sent me back? Let me stay until they would come to get me? And then?

My thoughts were interrupted when the door opened again. The girl was back and she brought someone with her. I quickly got up. She had brought an older woman with her. Her face showed many signs of aging, but I could still see that she had been quite pretty back in the day. The lady took a step forward.

‘Good morning miss,’ she said with a warm and welcoming voice. No one had ever called me miss before. ‘My name is Madame Norris. Welcome to House Howard. You are welcome to stay here for as long as you need. Would you like a towel?’ she grabbed a towel from the stack the girl was carrying and reached out to me. ‘Errr… Thanks.’ I said. I took the towel from her and started dapping my hair with it.

‘Could we get you anything else?’ I hesitated. She was so polite. Was it all just a trick? Suddenly I felt my stomach twist. ‘Er, might I er, maybe something to eat and drink? I asked. Madame Norris smiled at me. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Sadly, you’ve missed breakfast, but we’ll see what we can do for you.’ She bowed to me. ‘I don’t need much, just some leftovers will be fine.’ I said quickly. Madame Norris smiled again and left the room. ‘Would you like another towel?’ the girl asked. ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I answered hesitantly. The girl looked over her shoulder to see if the door behind Madame Norris was really shut.

She smiled. ‘So, where are your friends?’ she asked anxiously. ‘Friends?’ I asked. The warm fuzzy feeling that had just been wrapped around my body, left instantly. ‘I don’t…’ i stammered. ‘Or are they you’re sisters?’ the girl went on. ‘I…’ I didn’t know how to react. How did she know? Where they in danger? Could I trust these people? Apparently my thoughts could be read from my face because the girl said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe here. You can tell us.’ I bit my lip. ‘You know what, I’ll introduce myself first, I think I’ve forgotten about that before. So sorry about that. My name is…’ But before she could finish her sentence the door behind her opened again and Madame Norris entered the room with a platter filled with deliciously looking snacks and drinks. ‘Here you go,’ she said while she put the platter on the table in front of the fireplace. ‘We will let you enjoy your meal in peace. When you are finished, just ring that bell over there and we will come to pick it up,’ Madame Norris said and she pointed at a little golden bell that was put on the platter. I nodded at her. Madame Norris smiled and made a little bow, the girl did the same, and they left the room again.

The food was delicious. The taste was something I had never experienced before. Half of the time I didn’t even know what it was that I was eating, but I really couldn’t care less. The food we used to get at the orphanage was always old and cold and undercooked. Most of the time the Witch had made way to little, causing most of us to almost feel hungrier afterwards. I ate as much as I could, and then rang the bell softly. Not but a second later Madame Norris and the girl entered the room again. ‘Did you enjoy your meal?’ Madame asked. ‘Yes, very much so, thank you,’ I answered. The girl took the platter from the table and carried it out of the room. ‘Is there anything else we can do for you?’ I hesitated. Even though they had been so very kind to me I still wasn’t quite sure if I could trust them. ‘If you’d like, you could stay the night here,’ she encouraged. ‘It’s free, and you can stay for as long as you need to,’ Madame smiled at me. I looked out of the window. It was still raining. Out there it would be hard to survive. We’d had gone through almost all our food and we had to be careful not to get sick. Staying here and waiting for the rain to go away while strengthening ourselves was probably our best chance. Unless the police came knocking of course. But would they really? And if so, would these nice people really rat us out? I sighed. ‘Yes,’ I decided, ‘yes, I think I would like to stay here for a few nights, if that is okay,’ I felt my head gone red. Madame Norris smiled. The door opened again and the girl had returned. This time she wasn’t carrying anything.

‘Emma, would you please show our new guest to her room. Guest room one would be fine. After that I would like you to go fetch Ida and Hannah and tell them to get the other two girls from the shed. The poor children must be so cold. Give them the same welcome as our first guest and they can be put in guest room two and three. If there are any problems you can find me in the kitchen,’ I was shocked. How did everyone already know about Lilly and Julia? Maybe it was all just a trick? ‘Good day miss…?’ Madame Norris asked. I hadn’t introduced myself yet, but before I could think of another name to give them I heard my one voice speak ‘Ava,’. Madame s smiled again. ‘Good day miss Ava, and enjoy your stay here at House Howard,’. She bowed and walked out of the door. The girl stayed behind.

The girl, who’s name apparently was Emma, smiled at me. ‘If you’d follow me, please.’ Emma said. I nodded and followed her through the door where I came from. The girl led me back to the magnificent hall where we came through before. ‘Welcome to House Howard. The House was build by Sir Frederic Howard I himself in 1553, though he did not finish it ’till 1560. The House had been in the family ever since. The rooms are decorated only the best and unique furniture in style and age. House Howard counts many rooms, with 25 bedrooms of which are 7 guest rooms and..’ I felt myself started to drift off and found my mind with Lilly and Julia. Would Julia already be up? Were they still waiting for me to come back, to come and fetch them? Or had they already gone? Emma led me up the stairs to the first floor and blabbed on about the House and it’s layout and history. When we got to the second floor I vaguely heard Emma say, ‘… and so that’s when House Howard became a home for poor girls without education or prospects. Now it gives a home and a future for girls from all around the country. Though but few girls are accepted and most girls are chosen by Lady Howard herself. Atlas, that is how I got chosen.’ Emma straightened her back and looked at me proudly.

‘Er, sorry, chosen for what exactly?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘Chosen to get educated of course! Have you been listening at all?’ Emma said and she frowned. ‘You can get educated in three different arts: Artisan, Courtesan or Lady of the house. Each has it own course but some subjects are shared, especially in the first few years. As an artisan you learn how to be pretty, how to seduce and entertain. You are a companion to your Lord or Lady. As a courtesan you learn how to be smart and advise on certain matters. You are your Lords or Ladies right hand in matters of business and partnership. As a lady of the house you learn how to run a house and be head of staff. You are more than just your Lords or Ladies cleaning lady, you are also their most trusted and valued member of the house.’ Emma said proudly.

‘And you learn to be all that here?’ I asked her. ‘Yes, well like I said. You get all kinds of subjects which cover the lot but after a few years you can specialize on what you want.’ Emma explained. ‘And it’s all free?’ ‘It is, but there are only about 2 girl accepted every year and they are mostly chosen by Lady Howard herself. Some parents apply for their girls to be let in but most of the times they’re just picked of the street in a manner of speaking. Though some girls are literally picked of the street. Nina for instance. Ida was taken in when her mother came knocking here for work. She had been freed out of slavery but could’t find any new work. Of course they couldn’t offer her work, but they could take Ida and educate her for a better future. Victoria and Carina have been picked at some sort of grand ball. Isabelle is the daughter of the Lord from the next estate. Rose is a faraway cousin I believe and Hannah… To be honest I don’t know where Hannah came from. She might have told me or I’ve never asked. I can’t recall. Emma frowned.

‘So there are about what 7…’ I said. ‘Eight with me included.’ Emma finished my sentence. A moment of silence fell. I felt Emma look at me so I decided to take this moment to look around me a bit. Even though this was the first floor, everything looked just as beautiful as the ground floor. It was not as spacious at the ground floor, but still. The hallway in which we stood was quite narrow. With a balcony on our right where we could see into the hall of the ground floor. The hallway in which we stood stretched out way further than I had expected. I could see a few doors on the side, but couldn’t quite make up the signs that were hung upon them.

‘This is the first floor,’ Emma said. This is where our guests stay. You are free to go around as you please but we ask you not to go up to the second or third floor. ‘What’s there?’ I asked her curiously. ‘The second floor is the space where the Howard family stays. That is private. The third floor is the floor of the staff and the students. Which is also private.’ answered Emma. I nodded. ‘I will now show you to your room.’ she said, and I heard she had put her tour guide voice back up again. She led me to the end of the hallway to the door on the far right. Guest room 1 was engraved in golden letters into a wooden board hung on the door. ‘Here you are,’ Emma said and she opened the door for me. I stepped inside and held my breath. The most beautiful room I had ever seen looked back at me in all it’s beauty. A double bed with curtains and soft pillows spread across. A small couch and fireplace to sit by, with a stunning wooden engraved table. Another door at the other side of the room also had a small plate hanging up on it. Bathroom it said.

‘I hope everything is in order. If you ever need something you can pull the cord by the bed over there. Please don’t light or put out the fireplace yourself. As you can see you also have your own bathroom you can use to clean yourself up. You can lock your door from the inside, but the staff also has a key if needed. Lunch will be served at 12, so you’ll be picked up again by then. If there is nothing else I can do for you I have to be on my way to alert some of the other staff members so we can welcome your friends.’ Emma said and she smiled. Still overwhelmed by everything that was going on, i smiled back at her, feeling a little out of place. Emma bowed lightly and left the room.

Chapter 02 – The Rain and the Shed

The next morning I woke up to the sound of heavy rain falling down on the roof of the shed. I opened my eyes. The others where still sleeping. I got up, bumped my head softly and looked out of the rainy window. It seemed to be coming down badly.

‘Is it raining?’ Lilly asked me and she yawned. I nodded. She got up and came to stand next to me to look out the window. She growled.

‘What are you guys doing?’ Julia had woken up as well now and rubbed her eyes.

‘It’s raining.’ I said. She got up and squished herself in-between Lilly and me to see out of the window.

‘Not good.’ she said and she rubbed her eyes again. ‘I’m not going out in that.’ Lilly said and pressed her index finger against the glass.

‘No, we aren’t. It’ll soak us and we’ll all be sick in a few hours.’ I agreed.

‘Fine by me.’ Julia said and went back to lie down on the ground and sleep again.

‘It really is a gift.’ Lilly said while we both stood there and watched Julia fall asleep again almost immediately. I nodded. We both sat down again as well. I opened my bag and got out some food to eat. Lilly joined me.

We sat together and watched Julia sleep while we slowly ate. I tried to chew as much as possible on the little food I had until all the taste had gone and it was nothing more than mush. When we were done eating I softly poked Julia to wake her. She wasn’t all to happy about it but when I offered her some food she accepted and became quiet soon enough.

We spend the day playing some games we used to play at the orphanage to keep ourselves entertained when we were bored. Several times I got up to look out of the old window just to see that it was raining just as hard as before. When the sun started to go down it was still raining outside.

‘Maybe tomorrow will be better.’ Julia said hopefully while everyone was eating. I really hoped she was right.

The next day was even worse. The shed even started to leak a little at some places so we placed some empty buckets underneath it.

‘Try to look at it from the bright side,’ Julia said, ‘no one will go out in this weather so no one will find us here, and we’ll have fresh water at the end of the day.’ she pointed at the bucket. After dinner I decided it was time to say something sensible.

‘We can’t stay here forever.’

‘We won’t.’ Lilly said while still chewing a piece of bread.

‘I know, but what if it will rain the entire week? What then? We only have enough food for maybe two more days?’ I said looking into our bags.

‘We can’t stay here, we’ll starve. We have to do something.’

‘But what?’ Julia asked scared. I sighed.

‘I have been thinking.’ I said. ‘And now before you say anything, you’ll let me talk through the whole story, okay?’ They both nodded. ‘I have been thinking,’ I repeated, ‘what if Julia is right?’ They both looked at me with a frown. ‘What if there are nice people in there? Maybe they will give us shelter instead of sending us back. And maybe they won’t. Either way, we don’t know what the forecast will be and maybe it will rain for another week, we just don’t know. But we certainly can’t stay here. So I suggest, I will go to the house and see what I’ll find.’ Lilly opened her mouth but before she could say something I continued.

‘I’ve given it quite some thought and have figured there are several outcomes. The best will be that they will be nice and let me stay. I will tell them about you and they will agree to let you stay as well and I will come to get you. The worst will be that they will lock me up ‘till someone from the orphanage comes to get me. But if that is to happen, it’ll be only me and you guys will be safe and know not to go to the house. You will also have more food left to eat. The other outcome is that they will just send me away and I will just come back here again like nothing happened, but then at least we would’ve tried.

‘No,’ Julia insisted. ‘No you’re not going to that house. I was foolish to think that there are nice people there. You where right about what you said, and now you all of a sudden want to go there? No! Just no,’ Julia’s face was angry but scared.

‘Julia, look at the food we have left. I don’t like it either but I think she might be right. We have barely enough food left for another day and we have to think of something,’ Lilly agreed.

‘So we have three options?’ Julia had gotten up and she clenched both her fists. ‘We either starve in here, the three of us. We go out there tomorrow and we all get sick and die. Or one of us leaves and goes to the house with no idea of how that will end for us! Have you guys ever thought there might be another option? Like it might not rain anymore tomorrow?!’ Julia was shaking. I slowly got up. I knew what this was all about.

‘Jules, I know we promised not to leave each other and that we would always stay together, and I want to keep that promise as much as you do. But Lilly and I also promised to keep you safe when we took you with us,’

‘I made that choice myself!’ Julia almost shouted.

‘Yes I know, but we asked you to come along. I know you are old enough to make your own choices but that does not mean they are always right and that we won’t protect you anymore.’

Julia’s eyes glistened with tears. She didn’t know what exactly to say except for the fact that she didn’t wanted me to leave. I stroked her beautiful blonde hair for a moment.

‘Let’s make a deal then okay? If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, or if it’s raining even just a little less hard than today, I swear I won’t go. But if it is just as bad or worse, I will. I will do anything to keep you guys safe.’ I looked at Lilly, who was still seated on the ground. She nodded shortly. I turned and focused myself on Julia again. Julia bit her lip and pressed her eyes closed causing several tears to run down her face. I knew she was thinking of every other possible option for us three to survive and stay together, but apparently she found nothing because eventually she opened her eyes and hung her head with a soft nod.

‘Now then, let’s all get some sleep and hope tomorrow brings a better day for us.’ I said. We all lay ourselves down on the damp, hard floor. I turned my back to the girls. I didn’t want to see Julia cry anymore.

It would be for the best. I couldn’t let them die or get sent back as well. They wouldn’t survive the wrath of the Witch if we were to be sent back to her. They deserved a free life. Lilly was smart and cunning, she would take care of Julia for me. They would make it together in the big city.

The next morning I woke up early. I kept my eyes closed for a while because I did not wanted to see what fate would have me do today. But my ears had already spoiled the surprise for me. I opened my eyes and got up to look out the window where I found a sight that my ears already had revealed to me. It was still raining, and as impossible as it may have seemed the day before, it had gotten even worse. I sat down again. Lilly and Julia still lay curled up on the ground together. I had a short inner argument on whether I wanted to wake them up. I decided to only wake up Lilly.

‘Lilly?’ I whispered in her ear and poked her cheek. ‘Lil?’ Lilly turned her back to Julia and opened her eyes.

‘What?’ she said. ‘Is it still raining?’ I nodded. Lilly sighed and closed her eyes for a second. ‘Okay’ she said. She wanted to get up but I pushed her down again.

‘No stay. I don’t want to wake up Julia.’ I whispered. Lilly looked over her shoulder.

‘But,’ she whispered.

‘Yes I know. But it’s just too hard. Please make sure she knows that I love her.’ I said. My voice sounded raspy. Lilly nodded.

‘If I’m not back by tomorrow morning you should leave. Don’t hesitate for a second okay? I will be fine. Head for the nearest city and don’t hide near any houses until you get there. They might inform the other people that live there.’ I told her. Lilly nodded again. I looked at Julia one last time.

‘Don’t worry, I’l take good care of her.’ Lilly ensured me. I nodded. We looked at each other for a few seconds and in my mind I hugged her strongly. I took a deep breath and got up. I knew my backpack was still in the corner of the shed but I turned around to the door. I didn’t need it anymore anyways. I opened the door and slit through quietly, knowing that Lilly’s eyes where still following me. I closed it again and felt the rain rush down on me. I took another look at the house. It was huge and looked a bit scary from here in the rain.

“Alright then,” I said to myself, “let’s see whats inside” and I started running.janeedit

Chapter 01 – The Road to Where?

The following morning we woke up early. We quickly ate and drank some from the small amount we’d brought with us. Then we journeyed on again. We didn’t spoke much with each other, still worrying in the back of our minds that the Witch or some one else would get to us. But the path in the woods remained empty. The sun was at it’s highest point when we finally reached the end of the woods and found ourselves at a crossroads.

‘Now what?’ Julia asked, and she bit her lip.

‘There are some signs here.’ Lilly pointed out. There were indeed four signs. One pointed to the road we had come from. “Dromville, 15 km” it said. One pointing to the left had “Tomelle 10 km” on it, and the one on the right stated “Balouse 15 km”.

‘Let’s go left,’ Julia said hopefully.

‘No, lets go straight on. That road, according to the sign, leads to Perdice and Grotille. I’ve heard they are big cities with lots of opportunities.’ I insisted.

‘But that’s 50 km!’ It’ll take days to get there!’ cried Julia.

‘I know, but if they are looking for us, they’ll never expect us to go that far. They’ll probably go looking for us in the nearest villages first, which buys us more time to get there.’

‘Good point,’ agreed Lilly, ‘but we don’t have enough food and water to last that long.’ I sighed.

‘Well, then we just have to make sure we don’t eat it all in one go. And if that’s not enough, then let’s just hope we meet a nice stranger on our way. Shall we?’ I started walking. I heard a deep sigh and a snort. I knew they were angry, but this was our best shot. After a few seconds I heard some footsteps and I knew they had decided to follow me.

The next few days where hard. We couldn’t travel fast because of our empty stomaches and sore feet. We still didn’t talk much but I noticed that Lilly was energy was improving while Julia seemed to be more down with every step.

‘Do you think it was wrong to ask her with us?’ I whispered to Lilly who was walking next to me. Julia sang softly while she dragged herself along behind us.

‘Oh, let it go. It was her choice to make and she said yes. She knew what our path would be and she knew it would be hard. She’s just tired and a little homesick at the moment. You know what she is like.’ said Lilly. I looked over my shoulder at Julia. Her light blonde curls where messy and looked dirty. Her golden eyes where directed at the ground but didn’t really seem the notice what they where seeing. I did know what Julia was like. She was kind, worrisome, soft and gentle. I remembered when she dismantled a rattrap because she said she felt it was cruel to murder animals like that. When the Witch found out she had punished her by shaving off all of Julia’s hair. Julia had cried for days. Her hair was now just past her shoulders. Sweet Julia.

Julia had always been like a little sister to me. I was seven when she was brought in. She was only three. I remembered her crying for her father for days. Everybody resented her. At least she had a father, most of them had nothing or had never known them. Her crying broke my heart and I couldn’t help but love her and take care of her. It was said that her father would one day return for her, when he could take care of her. But after a year a letter came notifying that he had died. His inheritance went to the orphanage and the Witch spend it all before Julia was even informed about it.

The Witch. That Witch. My body filled itself with anger. I hated that woman. Well, hated was still to soft of an expression. The Witch was the owner of the orphanage. Her actual name was Miss Wirtch but because of her horrible character she was soon named the Witch among the orphans. That horrible woman. Oh the things I would’ve liked to do to her…

‘Look!’ called Julia suddenly. I awoke from my daydreams and looked at her.

‘What?’ Lilly asked, who also looked at her.

‘There! in the distance! Don’t you see it? Look!’ She jumped up and down of excitement. I followed her finger and squinted my eyes together to see what it was she was pointing at. Far away in the distance arose what seemed to be a large mansion.

‘So?’ Lilly asked. ‘So??? What do you mean; so? Don’t you know what this could mean?’ Julia almost shouted. She was wild with excitement but Lilly and I still didn’t know what it was she was so exited about. So what a large mansion on the side of the road. What could it mean to us.

‘Oh come one,’ Julia said inpatiently, ‘don’t you guys see? We could go there, ask if we can stay there. We’ll get warm soft beds and new dresses, good food and clean water. It will be amazing!’ Julia was still jumping around as if she had seen the future. I suddenly started laughing. I couldn’t help myself. Julia looked at me angrily.

‘I’m sorry Julia, but are you dehydrated or something? Didn’t we give you enough to drink?’ I said, still laughing. ‘You can’t seriously think that they’ll let us in do you? There are rich people who live in there. Probably some high ranked family or something who wants nothing to do with silly dirty orphans like us. We are nothing to them, they don’t care about us. Rich people don’t care about any ones but themselves.’ I shook my head. ‘No, we’re not going there.’ I looked at Julia. Tears of anger and frustration had welled up in her eyes.

‘Why do you always have to be so negative?! You’re always like that! We’ve been walking for four days now and we haven’t come across anyone at all. Luck has been on our side all this time, and it will with that mansion!’ Julia snapped at me. She seemed furious but sad at the same time. I had rarely seen her like this before. I looked at Lilly hoping for back up.

‘Well,’ she started carefully, ‘I have to agree that we’ve been lucky until now. But I doubt they will take us in Jule.’ Lilly bit her lip.

‘So you’re taking her side now?!’ Julia ranted on. Her hands where clenched to fists and her hole body was shaking. Lilly pressed her lips tightly together for a second and then said

‘Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try?’ She looked at me hopefully.

‘Heh, you’re serious? And what will we say? Oh, hi there, we are just three orphans who have run away from home and we’re hoping to find one here? You really think they would go with that? We could be thieves for all they know. Or worse, they could send us back! Is that what you want?’ I said angrily. Julia’s hands relaxed again but she was still shaking. She shook her head and a tear ran down her face.

‘Look,’ I said quietly while I took her hand, ‘I know you really want it to be that way. And I wish it could be that way too. But the world just doesn’t work like that. People are mean and selfish. We have to stick together and take care of each other. We have to be safe.’ Julia bowed her head and nodded softly while the tears still streamed down her face.

Silently we started walking again. Julia had let go of my hand but taken Lilly’s. I felt bad that I reacted the way I did to her. But I had to be rational. We had to be careful. We might have been four days away from that awful hell hole, but that didn’t mean we were safe now.

As the mansion came closer and became bigger, curiosity started to fill my brains. Who lived there? What would the house look like on the inside? Would they have maids? Are they nice people? Oh get yourself together. We are not going there. And that’s the end of it.

The sun was going down and filled the sky with an orange-red colour. I coughed. ‘Er, shall we, shall we walk around it? On the back side I mean. Maybe we can sleep in a shed or something, if they have one.’ I suggested carefully. Julia looked at me hopefully and Lilly smiled a bit. I frowned. ‘Just for the night though. We need a place to sleep anyway.’ I mumbled and turned my back to them.

We walked along the outlines of the garden. It was enclosed by high trees and perfectly shaped bushes. Here and there I got a glimpse of the display of the garden. Colorful flowers, gravel pathways, beautiful fountains and even a pond which seemed to be large enough to swim around in. It all looked stunning. I sighed.

When we were almost at the corner I spotted something that looked fairly much like a wooden structure. I stopped. Julia, who’s mind was apparently elsewhere occupied, almost bumped into me.

‘What?’ Lilly said. I pointed.

‘There. Through those trees.’ The girls followed my finger and spotted the building.

‘Do you think that it’s a shed?’ Julia asked hopefully.

‘Well, whatever it is, it seems to have walls and a roof, which is good enough for me.’ I grinned.

We made our way through the bushes into the garden. The sun had almost reached its lowest point. I kept checking if there was no one around who might see us but there seemed to be no one there.

‘Lots of stuff on shelves but seems to me that there is more than enough space for the three of us in there’. Lilly said while she peeked through the small and dusty window.

‘Okay then, let’s go in.’ Julia pulled the knob. ‘It’s locked!’ she whispered anxiously.

‘Let me.’ said Lilly. She searched through her bag and pulled out something small. She bend herself over the doorknob which prevented me from seeing what she was doing. A minute of silence, clicks and cracks and Lilly softly swearing passed. I started to get nervous.

‘You almost done yet?’

Lilly growled at me. Then I heard a soft and final click and Lilly opened the door for us.

‘All done!’ she said happily.

‘How did you…?’ I asked her with an astonished but relieved voice.

‘Some trick I learned a while back, but I’ll tell you all about it once we’re inside. Come on, you don’t want anyone to see us now do you?’ she said laughing.

We entered the shed. As Lilly already had said it was small, with lots of stuff packed in it, but big enough for us three to sit in. Lilly closed the door behind us and we looked around. It was mostly gardening stuff. Shovels, hoes, trimmers and brooms in all kinds of shapes and sizes where stalled all around us. In a corner sat a big sackcloth.

‘We can’t start a fire in here.’ Julia said. ‘Does anyone have candles?’ I shook my head but then realized that it was probably to dark for her to see so I told her I didn’t.

‘Me neither.’ Lilly sighed. We stood there for a while. Unable to see and scared to move because we might make some noise.

I coughed. ‘Shall we… Shall we sit down?’ I asked. I heard some movement from where I knew Lilly was standing so she must have gone to sit down. I followed her example and noticed that Julia did the same. We were all awfully quiet still. I was tired but too afraid to go to sleep yet. Apparently Julia felt the same because she whispered

‘So, what do we do if we arrive at Grotille?’ I bit my lip. I had been so consumed by the plan of getting out of that house and getting away from the Witch that I never actually thought about it. I had no plan.

‘Easy,’ Lilly suddenly said. ‘We hide as soon as we arrive until nightfall. Then, when it’s night, we will go out and get rid of these horrible uniforms and nick some new clothes somewhere else. It’s gonna be tricky though, because big cities have often more people wandering around at night. The next morning we will go to some shop and sell our stuff from the orphanage and…’

I snorted. ‘Which stuff? We barely have anything with us.’ I didn’t think our pyamas and old junk would be worth anything to them. Lilly searched through her bag and held up something high above her head so the moonlight through the tiny window could light it. It looked a lot like the small silver platter the Witch often used when she had visitors. Julia gasped.       ‘Yup, and I have a lot more of these in here.’ She rattled her bag softly. ‘But how?’ I could only ask.

‘Simple,’ Lilly responded, ‘remember when I took so long to get out and Julia mentioned she heard some noise? That was me gathering all the fancy expensive stuff the Witch had in her possession. It was’t easy but…’

‘Lilly, you are a genius!’ I almost shouted.

‘Yeah, well, I just figured that when we would get out we would need money and since we don’t have any, this was kind of the only option. Plus the Witch will probably die when she finds out so that’s another plus side.’

I heard some movement and Lilly gasped. My eyes had almost gotten used to the darkness and I could see Julia hugging Lilly tightly. I smiled.

‘I’m so happy you are here with us! You are so smart!’ Julia said thankfully. ‘Now tell us more about your plan.’ she said and let go of Lilly.

‘Well we could use the money to get a coach to Perdice, but I’d rather not. I’d rather save it for when we really need it. I think it would be best if we would stay for a few days in Grotille. Find ourselves some place cheap, preferable free of course, to sleep. Get some food and drinks and rest until we feel better. Then gather some food and water for the journey to Perdice. In Perdice we will all try and find some sort of work were we can make some money and then, who knows. We’ll see how it goes from there I guess.’

We talked for another few hours of the plan and what we hoped to find in Perdice. My fear had faded and was replaced by enthusiasm. We could be anything! We could make our own money, and live together! Nobody would command us anymore. Nobody telling us what to do or who to be. Total freedom. After a while we all went to sleep. With a smile still on my face, I was quickly gone.

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Chapter 00 – Prologue

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I lay in bed. It was finally completely dark in the dormitory and I listened carefully to the rhythm of the breath of the other girl. It seemed that everyone had finally gone to sleep. I got up as quiet as I could and quickly started changing into my clothes. I swiftly grabbed my bag from underneath the bed and stuffed my nightgown in it. A girl mumbled in her sleep. I walked towards the window and looked outside. Nothing to see. Nobody was there. Yet. I opened the window as quiet as I could and secured the bag around my shoulder for safety. Without a sound I climbed out of the window and let myself down along the drainpipe.

When I reached the ground I looked up to the other windows and started counting.

One, two, three, four, five, six…

Twenty…

Thirty…

Forty…

Come on…

Sixty…

Finally another window opened and a girl came climbing out. I watched her carefully climbing down until she reached the ground.

‘Finally, I thought you would never come. Are you sure about this though?’ I asked her quietly. She nodded and bit her lip. I snorted. ‘Alright then. Have you heard anything from Lilly?’ I asked. She shook her head, frowned and answered: ‘Yes, actually, I did. I heard some sounds coming from downstairs. Not to loud though. It might have been her. But it might have been the Witch.’ She looked at me in fear. I smiled. ‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured her, ‘maybe she’s just…’ But before I could finish my sentence a third window opened and a another girl came jumping out.

‘My goodness Lilly, what took you so long?’ I asked her angrily. ‘Never mind that, lets just go.’ She answered. ‘Lil, I heard quite some noise from downstairs, are you alright?’ the other girl asked carefully. ‘My god Julia, can we just go already? I know I made noise, that’s why I want to leave. NOW!’ ordered Lilly. Julia gave one scared look at the building and then followed us.

We ran through the streets as fast as we could. Our bags clutching around our shoulders. Around every corner we checked to see if no one was walking the street before we crossed it. After what seemed to be hours we finally reached the outskirts of the city. Julia started to slow down a bit. ‘I know you’re tired, but we’re not out yet. We’ll rest when we reach the woods.’ I whispered to her. She looked at me annoyed but she knew I was right.

When the last homes started to fade in darkness behind us and the grass beneath our feet became longer, we finally started to slow down a bit. We kept on walking. Nobody said anything. Now and then I looked around to make sure no one was following us. My feet started to hurt and I was tired. I knew the others were too but I didn’t dare to stop. Not yet at least.

Finally after what seemed to take ages, a dark spot started to rise in the distance. The woods.

‘We’re not going in there right now, are we?’ Julia stammered.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll only go in a bit. I think it might be best to climb a tree and rest in there for a bit.’ replied Lilly. Julia moaned. ‘It’s safer up in there, trust me.’ Lilly added.

‘I know,’ groaned Julia, ‘but I hate climbing, and I’m really not good at it.’

‘We’ll help you.’ I said.

We chose a large, strong tree with thick branches that grew close to one another. I pulled some rope out of my bag.

‘Here, tie yourself to the tree. That way you won’t fall out if you fall asleep.’

‘Thank god you always think of everything,’ laughed Lilly. When we were all tightly secured, I could finally close my eyes. I was so tired. But with a bit of luck, our escape would be successful. As soon as we would wake up, we would journey on. We would follow the path, not on it though, but next to it, so people walking it wouldn’t see us. And when we would’ve reached the end of the woods, we would really finally be free. Free from that Witch. Free from that hell hole. Free from that miserable life. Finally free. And with that last thought in mind, I relaxed my mind and felt myself falling asleep.

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The Night Walk

I liked walking my dog. I liked getting out and taking a walk. In the morning it was the only thing that could really wake me up. In the afternoon it was the best way to take a break, and at night is was the best kind of sleeping medicine. Our nightly walks were often the longest. It was then that I had the most time to spare. It allowed me to process all my thoughts and feelings of that day. It allowed me to clear my head.

I liked to take roads and streets where I hadn’t been before. Explore new grounds. I knew it wasn’t always safe to do so, especially not where I lived, but who would mug, harm or kidnap someone with a dog like mine accompanying their victim?

The rain softly kissed my skin, and I enjoyed the way it felt on my face. In the light of the lampposts that lit the streets the rain looked like falling and sparkling diamonds. Whenever the leash was pulled, I’d stop and wait patiently.

When I felt the clouds in my head had finally disappeared enough, I knew it was time to head back home. I looked around. The alley I was in seemed unfamiliar to me. I looked for a street sign, but couldn’t find one anywhere near. The alley was dark, and the buildings that rose up on both sides seemed old and abandoned. I decided to turn around and walk back the way I came.

Sooner than I expected I reached a crossing. I stared into the streets, but none of them rang a bell. I regretted not taking one of those courses where dogs learn how to use their nose properly. Still, she was quite a smart dog with a good nose. I commanded her to search, a command I often used when she had hidden her toys or bones. She looked at me confused. Apparently that didn’t work outside, but maybe the home command did. Whenever the road was familiar to her, she would find her way back instantly. This time the command seemed to work, because she lowered her head and started sniffing the floor.

I let her guide me and I quickly found myself sinking away my into own thoughts. It was only when I felt a stern tug from the leash that I awoke from them again. I looked over my shoulder. She had sat down and stared at me, her head tilted a little. I looked around again. We weren’t home. The alley we were in looked similar to the last one we had stopped in. Only this one was darker. Scarier. And had a dead end.

The wooden fence rose up high from the ground into the darkness. Now what? I tried my best not to start panicking and turned around again to walk back, but I had barely taken one step when I heard a low growl.

‘Pepper, quiet!’ I commanded her. But instead of shutting up, she suddenly started to bark loudly. I wanted to walk up to her and calm her, but the second I moved two arms grabbed me from behind. I screamed, but before I knew it, the darkness consumed me…

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