“Does he have lice?”
“Melirri! Why are you lurking there?” Mother Mayla snapped at the small girl dawdling in the shadows by the bathroom’s door way.
“Well, does he? The last one did and they ended up biting Grent all over-”
Mayla dropped the long handled scrubbing brush into the hot water and pushed several damp strands of grey hair back with hands covered in soap bubbles before glaring at Melirri. “He just needs a good bath!”
The boy in the old metal tub was busy pretending that he wasn’t naked, that there wasn’t a large woman briskly washing him, and that there certainly wasn’t a small girl watching him. He stared straight ahead, picking a spot of flaking brickwork on the wall to suddenly become extremely interested in.
“Who left him?”
“None of your business!” Mother Mayla snapped, before narrowing her eyes at Melirri. “You should be practising your letters with the others. Did you get away from Mother Minette again?”
Ryl allowed himself a quick glance at the intruder and saw her shrug in response. She was a little younger than him maybe, but just as thin. But she was clean compared to him, with a warm golden tone to her arms and legs, and dressed in a crisply pressed shift dress with a border of carefully embroidered daisy-like flowers. The cloth was cheap, but someone had tried to make it look nicer. Likewise, her hair was a dandelion’s bloom of yellow, but someone had tried to tie it into submission with thin strips of cotton, obviously fighting a losing battle against the wild shape of it. Two large amber eyes stared at him with curiosity, set in a face that was the same golden shade as the skin on her bare arms and legs. Battered sandals that were just a bit too small were tied to her feet. Then he noticed her ears.
She spotted him looking and stuck her tongue out at him.
“He’s staring!” She sulked, “He’s staring at my ears!”
“People will stare. But you can choose to ignore them.”
“Maybe I should stare at him in the bath. All naked!”
“Maybe you should get back to your classes!” Mayla said in an increasingly annoyed voice.
“I finished all my work already, and anyway Mother Minette is asleep again.” Melirri said smugly. “And Warden Benden said that a new boy had arrived.” She stared at Ryl again, looking him over. “So, who didn’t want him?”
“That is not a… charitable… way to put it Meli-”
“My uncle. My parents’d died years back, but then he couldn’t look after me anymore.” Ryl said quietly, looking at the mountains of bubbles just in front of him. “It’s not his fault, ‘e tried. For as long as ‘e could.”
“He tried. For as long as he could, Ryl.”
“That’s what he said Mother Mayla!” Said Melirri.
“Well, thank Helm that your uncle thought to bring you here rather than let you be out on the streets. Praise Helm.” Said Mother Mayla with a warm smile.
Ryl caught Melirri rolling her eyes, and he had to hide his smile from Mother Mayla. But when he looked back the girl was gone.
She found him again later that day, when all the children in the orphanage were out in the yard, playing for a bit before Mayla and Minette tried again to force the letters and numbers into their distracted minds. He was sitting in an out of the way part of the flagstone covered play area, watching the larger children dominating the games of the others.
The voice seemed to come from nowhere. He finally looked up to see her perched on the top of the bricks of the outer wall behind him. “Get down from there! You’ll fall!” he panicked.
But she casually climbed down, finding cracks in the mortar for her small fingers with ease. “Haven’t yet.”
“How old are you?” He asked when she was sat down next to him.
“Mayla says I’m six. You?”
“Eight. You been here a while?”
“Always. It’s alright. They do try to make us practice our letters every day, and sometimes Mother Mayla goes on a bit too much about Helm… but it’s not bad. There’s food and beds. Can’t say the other kids had those outside… before they came here.”
He was trying not to stare at her ears again, and failing.
“So, you gonna ask?”
“Mother Mayla says I’m an elf.” She said with fierce eyes, daring him to laugh.
“I’ve never seen an ‘elf’ before.”
“She says there aren’t any others in the city. But there were a few once. Visiting. And one of them left me behind at the orphanage’s door.” Her lips clamped shut, as though that was all she wanted to say on that. So they sat in companionable silence for a bit, watching the other children playing and fighting in their donated clothes. Eventually she went to go.
“My other uncle worshipped Helm for a bit. Before he started gambling and spent the rest of the coin on offerings for Tymora.” Ryl said, not wanting her to leave.
“Mother Mayla used to be a pladin.”
“Like a warrior for Helm.”
“You mean a paladin?”
“Maybe.” She said, her golden brows knitting. “Smarty pants.”
“No… I…. Sorr-” he stuttered. But then she was gone, clambering up the bricks of the courtyard wall again and easily running along them to a low roof, and quickly disappearing out of sight.
A few dinners in the main hall followed where he could spot the bright yellow of her dandelion hair but he was sat too far away to say a sorry to her. Other boys and girls with flailing hands and hungry bellies sat between them and grabbed at her food as Minette, older even than Mayla, slept at the top of the table. Sometimes the Warden, Benden, ripped a bun from a thief and gave it back to the little elf girl. But most of the time she went without as the others laughed at her weird eyes, shock of hair, and her blade like ears. He started putting a bit of his cheese and bread into the pockets of his patched short trousers.
The dormitory was in the roof of the orphanage, and separated into three rooms. The younger children, boys and girls, shared one, while the older children were separated into the other two rooms when Mayla deemed it ‘appropriate’. Every room was patrolled in the night by Mayla, Benden and Minette, and once the candles were blown out every child had to go straight to sleep. Of course, there were rule breakers and night-time whisperers. Occasionally the day’s disagreements tipped over into moonlit fights, but that was rarer. Rarer still was finding a child gone when you came to bring them scraps from that evening’s dinner, knowing that they had had theirs picked at by larger children doing damned good impressions of scavenging wild beasts.
Ryl stared at the bed, as though he could make Melirri reappear by force of will. But she was somewhere else that night. Perhaps gone again, off over the rooftops.
He wasn’t sure what made him curl up in her bed instead of going back to his own that night, but they both woke there as the bright sun and the sounds of the city came through the broken tiles of the roof above them. Her hair was spread out on the pillow, an even wilder mass of yellow than usual as their sleep had mussed it up. She sat up, giving him a quick smile as he yawned and then darted from the bed to the piss pot at the end of the long room. He took the chance to get back to his own bed, still wondering where she got to in the night as the other children in the room stirred and took their own turns at using and emptying the pot into the street below.
A pattern formed. He’d start the night in his bed, and end it in hers. She would disappear out of the window and reappear when he was asleep, creeping into their bed and draping his arm over her. If Mother Mayla, Minette or Benden saw them… and they must have done… nothing was said of it.
One night though, she woke him on her return, her face alight with excitement as she whispered all about her discovery. In the marketplace there was a homeless man who’d made himself a bed in a corner and had been lying down there with a cat wrapped about his shoulders.
“What’s exciting about a cat?” He mumbled in his half-a-sleepness. “Plenty of alley-cats about.”
“It comes and it goes!”
He rubbed his eyes, trying to wake enough to understand why her amber eyes were sparkling in the moonlight. “It comes and it goes?”
“He can make it go poof!” She said, gesturing with her hands. “One minute there’s an orange cat. Then there’s not!”
Ryl paused. “Magic?”
“Magic!” Melirri grinned. “And he wrote down how to do it!” She pulled a scrap of paper out of her dress and held it out to him. On top of some much older scribblings someone had written out what looked like an ingredients list, but with along with words and symbols that he could not make out.
“Some homeless man gave you a spell? To make a cat? Did you give him any actual coin for it…?”
“Don’t be daft, I don’t have any coin!” she hissed, keeping a careful eye out for any signs of movement in the children about them. Grent was snoring deeply, for which Ryl was pleased. Just two days ago the larger boy had pulled viciously at Melirri’s right ear, and Ryl had earnt his first black eye decking him for it. He was still writing out lines for Mayla as a punishment and did not want to earn any more if the bully woke and had to be put back to sleep with Ryl’s fists. “He said he was happy to share the spell. He said he could see I might need a friend.”
Ryl tried not to take offence, but felt his lower lip sticking out anyway. “Yeah sure, I bet a magic cat would make a great friend.”
“He said I could make it anything I wanted. A cat, a dog, even a snake!” Melirri said, oblivious to his upset.
“This sounds dangerous. And you shouldn’t be talking with strange men in the market at night! You know kids sometimes disappear…”
But she was already rereading the well-thumbed piece of paper. “The only real problem is getting the ingredients. I need a brass-e-er.”
“He said it was some kind of thing to burn the incense and herbs in. Made of metal.”
“Smelly stuff, it burns. I need ten gold pieces worth.”
“Ten gold pieces?!!” Ryl gasped, and she quickly clamped her golden hand over his mouth, so that he had to mumble it again “Mem mold meeses!”
“I know! I know! But there has to be a way!” She was starting to lay down next to him, grabbing his arm as she always did to lay over her, but still thinking out loud. “Maybe I can find an incense shop and see if they throw any out at the end of the day… or a brass-e-er shop…”
Days passed before she mentioned her plans again. Ryl got into more fights, and began to find that he was quicker with his fists than some of the boys who challenged him. They tried being faster, but that only made them make more mistakes. He seemed to be able to see where they left themselves carelessly open and could get a good hit in there that stopped the bout. But still he got called in to see Mother Mayla in her study after leaving Grent wheezing from one well-placed hit to his ribs.
“You’ve been fighting.” Mayla said with an accusing look on her face. “This is not a place for fighting.”
He waited for her to decide to send him away. But she didn’t.
“You fight because they pick on Melirri.”
“She’s only small!”
“Yes, she’s smaller than the human girls her age. But smarter. Quicker. She could find ways to defend herself. But you step in and defend her. Why?”
“Because… because it doesn’t matter if she can defend herself. She shouldn’t have to. Not while I’m about.” He said defiantly.
“Are you special?”
“No. I’m no one.” It was painfully true, but he embraced it. He was just an orphan. Abandoned by his uncle and left in an orphanage with the others like him.
“Have you heard of Helm, Ryl?”
He shrugged, “Only from you.”
“And what have I said about Him?”
“That he’s the god of protection. That he guards and defends.”
“And do you know that I was once a paladin of Helm?” She said, and Ryl tried hard to imagine the old, grey haired woman, her body now plump and soft beneath her plain brown robes, as a warrior for any god. He just couldn’t. She went on, “I stood in front of those who could not defend themselves as well as those who could. Why? Because I was called to do it. By Helm. Perhaps you are called in the same way. We could send you to the temple. You could train with others who feel the same way as you. Learn how to fight with sword and shield and wear Helm’s symbol, the gauntlet…?”
There was a great deal of hope and expectation on her face, and he did so wanted to please her. Mayla was strict but she was kind. And she’d made him a home here, for him and for the other orphans. But he was no ‘pladin’… Melirri’s word coming back to him then and almost making him smile. He was meant to be here.
He put on his most serious grown up face. “I need to think about this.”
“Of course.” She stood up from her desk, and paced a little about her small study room. “We are all called to serve the gods in different ways. And no man, or woman, can decide that for another.” He followed her path, noting the piles of papers, scribbled notes, and other busyness of running the orphanage. Was she now called by her god to bother with all of that boring stuff? But then he noticed something else on her shelves apart from the mess of paperwork. A metal dish on three legs, the symbol of a gauntlet on the side. Was that a brass-e-er?!
She ushered him out of her study soon after, but there was a pleased smile on her face. And the next morning there was honey for their morning rolls, as though the treat was in celebration of something. Melirri in particular loved the sticky sweet honey from the Brumbleman Hives of Upper Hagbend, and he made sure to force his way to a seat next to her to keep the scavengers at bay. While he was there he whispered to her about the brass-e-er. And she excitedly whispered back that had something else to show him.
Back up in the attic, between their lessons and chores about the orphanage, Melirri pulled out an old wooden crate from underneath her bed, a brand burnt into its side in the shape of a beehive, the Brumbleman’s sign.
“Bit and pieces, just bits and pieces. Do you think there’s enough now?” She said, an eager smile on her golden face.
He looked in the crate to find a mass of trinkets and bobbins. Hair clips and shoe buckles. A silk handkerchief. A small blue glass bottle of perfume. A couple of copper coins. Earrings by the handful.
“How… how long have you been collecting this?”
“Always.” She shrugged. “I just find things. I’m good at finding things.”
“Melirri! You didn’t just find these!”
“Well… well, I needed the coin for the spell!”
“No, you’ve been taking these for a long time! Before you even knew about the spell and the incense!”
“Are you going to tell Mayla?” She said, panic on her face. She’d been in the orphanage from a babe, she didn’t know anything else. If he told Mayla, and she was made to leave…
“No. No I won’t. But no more stealing.”
“But aren’t these so shiny!” She said, her amber eyes sparkling as she looked over her treasures. But then she quickly closed the lid when she looked up at his serious face and saw the storm brewing in his human eyes. “Okay, okay. I’ll stop. But, we do need the brass-e-er. And incense.”
“We?! This is your spell. Your new friend.” He tried not to sound petulant. And failed.
“Don’t be silly, Ryl. It will be our friend!”
So it was that Ryl found himself playing lookout as Melirri took the metal bowl from Mayla’s study while she was busy waking Minette in the pantry. Expecting a quick in and out operation, he was surprised to peer into the study to see Melirri rooting about in the drawers of Mayla’s desk and the other bits of furniture half buried under papers.
“What are you doing?!”
“if there’s a brass-e-er, maybe there’s incense too! Ooh!”
She’d found something that was fascinating to her, and assuming it was some ‘treasure’ he darted in to get it out of her hand and back into the drawer where she’d plucked it from. But as soon as his hand touched the thing she was holding he felt a surge of revulsion and backed away. Lying there in her palm was a holy symbol, but for no god Ryl knew. For a second it could have been mistaken for the gauntlet of Helm, but it was a disturbing black hand, not shining steel and finger joints, and the thumb and first finger were touching.
“Put it back!” He hissed, and Melirri snapped back to action and buried the foul hand symbol were she’d found it.
“Look” she said, a smile returning to her face once the thing was gone away. “I found this in another drawer.”
She held open a silk pouch full of sweetly smelling powder.
“If you’d found that, why were you still looking through Mayla’s things?!”
Melirri just smirked, grabbed his hand and drew him from the room, running with him up the stairs to the attic, flying past other orphans who stared at them and whispered about the elf and the human holding hands so publically.
Alone, but together, in the attic they sat on the floor by Melirri’s bed and worked their way through the methods of the spell. The words that flowed like honey on Melirri’s tongue were like lead on Ryl’s so he finally accepted the role of ‘passer’ and ‘holder’ as she went to work. The whole thing took longer than he thought it would and Ryl began to panic that their absence would be noticed and one of the Mothers would come looking for them.
“Stop that.” Melirri said, sitting still with her eyes closed. “Breltha Amtha, ignotin ad evocast,” she carried on fluidly as though she hadn’t paused to reprimand him. “Breltha Amthan, ignotis. You’re distracting me. Amthal Brethan.”
“Stop checking the door. We’re nearly done. Ignotisni!”
She gestured for a few minutes more, seeming to tie knots in the air with her fingers. He’d expected more light and maybe some kind of mystical sound. But it was quiet in the attic as the smoke from the brass-e-er silently flowed outwards.
“Is that it?” He finally asked when she finally stopped moving.
“Shh!” She said, her amber eyes still completely closed. “Ad evocatem!” She suddenly shouted, making him jump on the wooden boards of the attic.
A small golden spark flared into life between them and then quietly died away. A bee flew from the space in which the spark had lived and died in, and then buzzed towards Melirri. He almost went to swat it, but stopped as he saw it land on her forehead, and settle peacefully. Melirri giggled as it tickled her with its furry feet.
She opened her amber eyes and locked his human blue ones. “Yes. They’re small, like me. They’ve got yellow hair like me. And they’re furry and cute. And they can get into places a cat can’t. And they make honey. I like them.”
“Not much use for playing with. As friends go.” He said sceptically. “A puppy would have been more fun.”
“Oh Ryl.” She said with a sigh. “I don’t need a puppy, not when I’ve got you.” And she stuck her tongue out at him, just as she had done when he’d first seen her in the bathroom.
And he knew then that he was never going to leave the orphanage for the temple. Never.
Bee sigil art by Kindra Tia Haugen