Elmi: The House of UrchinsMature

Elmi peered round the corner carefully, her breath held.

She watched as the fat baker, grunting and heaving as he went, stepped out of the door of his store in the lower Flags and pulled the door closed behind him.

He placed a 'closed' plaque over the door handle and walked away. He would be going for lunch further into the district, a little pub she had seen him in before, scoffing down meat pies with ale.

Depending on how large his breakfast had been, Elmi knew she had around thirty minutes before he would stumble back down the street, slightly tipsy, and return to work.

Elmi took the chance, pulling her hood up over her knotted red hair and stepping out of the shadows towards the door. She had picked the baker originally because a week prior she had seen him throwing stale bread into the bin just minutes after refusing her any leftovers, but discovering his shop was in the backstreets, far away from prying eyes, had only sweetened the deal.

From her pocket, Elmi took out one of her metal lockpicks and knelt by the lock. She placed it in carefully and from her other pocket, she produced a black iron tension wrench. Using both, she slowly began to manipulate the pins inside the lock.

She was quick with a pick, years of practice borne of hunger had seen to that, but the lock was old and tired and not easy to break. Eventually, though, it clicked and the door creaked open.

Inside, the smell of still-warm bread washed over her and Elmi's stomach rumbled madly. She could not remember the last time she had had a full meal.

Take only what you need, she reminded herself. That was the rule. Getting carried away, no matter how hungry you were, was how you got caught.

She pulled the sack from her pocket and set about filling it with anything nearby - she found a few loaves, enough for at least a week, and even one or two pastries that made her mouth water.

She could not linger long, even if the baker did not come back, there was no telling who could come through the door and foil her plan. Ignoring her watering mouth, she was about to leave when she spotted something through the dividing hatch between the shop and the kitchen.

Sat out on the large preparation table, out for the world to see, a tray of the most delicious looking chocolate eclairs the young beggar girl had ever seen.

Elmi gripped the sack tightly. Bread would keep them alive, but eclairs were a sweet, tempting target. She couldn't recall ever tasting chocolate, but her starving mind created a taste for her. It was heavenly.

Cursing her foolish stomach, she made the decision and climbed into the hatch, dropping into the kitchen. She scooped up the plate of eclairs, just resisting the urge to scarf one down right there and then, and turned to leave.

"You little shit," she heard. Her blood ran cold.

The baker's wife, as fat as him with a hairy lip and a boil on her forehead, stood at the door to the shop. In her hunger, she had forgotten about the baker's wife. Elmi cursed herself.

"Come here, you sneaky little bitch," the woman said, reaching out for her.

Elmi reacted, holding the sack tight, she charged at the woman, aiming for a gap between her and the door. The fat woman was quicker than she looked, though, and just managed to grip a lock of Elmi's hair, yanking her back.

"Bloody urchin," the woman said, pulling the sack from Elmi and dragging her out of the shop in a vice. "Think you can steal from those of us who work for a living? I'll see you in a cell."

The woman, hissing and grunting like her husband, dragged Elmi up the street. Elmi cried out, mainly from the pain of being dragged by her hair.

They stopped at the end of the side street and out into the main shopping area. People stopped going about their business and looked on as the baker's wife dragged her out onto the cobbles.

"You there, guards," the woman cried to two nearby Sentinels. "I found this little shit in my shop, stealing from us."

The Sentinels seemed taken aback by the abrasive woman for a moment before they stepped forward. Elmi felt a coldness in her spine - if she went to the cells, the others would starve. Nul would starve. She reacted.

Turning just enough against the woman's grip, Elmi bared her teeth and sunk them deep into the woman's flabby arm.

"You dirty little-" the woman shouted, letting her go as the Sentinels broke into a run.

With an almighty push, Elmi barged into the woman, who loosened the sack into her arms.

"Oi!" The Sentinels yelled, but Elmi was already moving, as fast as her skinny ankles would carry her, gripping the bag tight.

The crowd watched as Elmi flew away from the commotion, but none of them reached out to stop her, probably afraid of receiving a bite themselves. Elmi could still taste the woman's blood on her tongue.

Behind her, the woman screamed epithets, demanding the Sentinels give chase. The sound of their stomping boots was all Elmi could hear.

She ducked into an alleyway, past a group of men and women playing a card game. They yelled out as she sent their cards flying.

Elmi was too hungry to run at full pelt, but she was still half the size and a quarter of the weight of the guards and had the benefit of light clothing as opposed to heavy steel plate.

Their chasing footsteps died out as she ducked and weaved between alleyways, but she did not slow until she was sure they were gone.

When she was sure she was alone, she stopped, keeling over, panting.

When she had recovered, Elmi looked around around, trying to get her bearings. She had left the Flags and slipped back into the Labyrinth - no matter how determined the Sentinels were, or how much the baker's wife shouted and berated, they would think twice about pursuing her here.

Elmi opened the bag and breathed in the scents of the bread, mixed with the sweet tang of the chocolate. She resisted the urge to plunge her hand in, then set off in the opposite direction she had come.

It was early afternoon by the time she reached the empty building she had chosen as shelter a few weeks previous. They were constantly on the move, but this place was dry and comfortable, so she was not in a hurry to leave.

Slipping the bag into her cloak, she was about to push the rotted wooden door open when she saw a flash of light and heard a gasp from the end of the alleyway, out in the street.

She wondered for a moment, before she realised what was happening. As quickly as she could, her legs still like jelly, she ran to the end of the alleyway, where she found just the thing she feared.

A crowd had gathered, around ten or fifteen men and women, around a young, skinny urchin boy. He held out his hands, which suddenly erupted in flames, a spiral of fire spinning into the air above them before extinguishing with a flash.

The crowd were mesmerised. Elmi was horrified.

She rushed out and collected the boy, pulling him back. The crowd shouted out in disappointment as she dragged him into the alleyway.

"What have I told you?" She snapped at the young boy, Nul, her little brother.

Nul looked frightened. His hands were still warm.

"Nul, tell me, what have I told you?" She repeated.

Nul wiped his eyes with a dirty hand.

"To keep it a secret," he said, finally.

Elmi nodded, brushing his dirty hair.

"Why do you need to keep it a secret?" Elmi said forcefully.

Nul wrung his hands.

"Because people don't understand," the boy said sadly.

Elmi nodded. Even she did not truly understand what it was Nul could do, but even she knew that if he was discovered by the wrong person it would be a bad thing.

A Whisperer, somebody had once said. Someone that does things others can only dream of.

"But they like it," Nul said. "They give me money," he held out a handful of copper coins.

You are not a sideshow, she wanted to say. She smiled as reassuringly as she could, changing the subject.

"I have a treat," she said, pulling out the bag from her coat. Nul's eyes lit up. She could almost hear his stomach rumbling. "Let's go and see the others."

Inside, the house was chilly. The building had been built over two levels, but the ceiling between them had long since caved in. A broken window in the roof allowed dusty white light to cascade in.

Elmi led Nul inside and pulled the door closed behind her, pulling off her hooded robe and placing it on a gnarled wooden table.

"Elmi!" Came a cheerful voice.

A young girl came running from further into the house, around eight or nine, with dirty blonde hair.

"Mera," Elmi smiled as the girl jumped into her arms.

"You were gone for so long," Mera said. "Abby said you weren't going to come back but I told her to shut up."

"Of course I was coming back, silly, I always come back," Elmi said, brushing Mera's grubby clothes down. "But you shouldn't tell people to shut up, it's rude."

Mera frowned, but then grinned.

"Get your brother and the others," Elmi said. "I have a surprise."

Mera glanced at the bag, her face lighting up in the gloom of the house, before disappearing.

A few minutes later, Mera reappeared with her younger brother, Pip, and the two other children she shared the house with. These children, considered urchins by the rest of the city, had no one else, so they had gravitated towards Elmi.

Pip was scrawnier than all the other children, more like a twig than a five year old boy. His face was black with soot.

The other two, Bemmy and Abby, were twins, but neither of them knew how old they were. Elmi guessed they were around eight or nine.

They all spotted the sack she had filled at the baker's and circled around it like vultures.

"It smells so good," Bemmy said.

Elmi smiled. They were already happier than she had seen them in months, and they had not even seen what else she had liberated from the baker.

"Everybody sit down and close your eyes," Elmi said. They had no chairs, so each child, including Nul, sat cross-legged on the dusty stone floor. She glanced at him and saw that he had one eye open. "Nul, I can see you."

He grinned and snapped his eyes shut. Shaking her head, Elmi opened the bag and removed one of the eclairs. Her mouth watering madly, she held it out and waved it gently under their noses.

"Open them."

The kids opened their eyes at the same time and Elmi could not help but laugh at their faces, filled with amazement.

"Is that..." Abby gasped.

"Yep," Elmi said. "Chocolate. Proper chocolate, and cream."

Bemmy leaned forward and Elmi handed it to him, frightened he might snap her hand off.

"Relax," she said. "I have one for each of you. Eat them slow."

One by one, she handed the rest of the children an eclair. Mera looked like she was about to cry when she saw hers.

Nul took his carefully, then looked back at her, frowning.

"Don't you have one?" He asked.

Elmi smiled sadly.

"There were only enough for the four of you," she said. "But I don't mind, they're gifts for you."

The others, once they were done staring at the eclairs as though they were bars of gold, began to slowly pick away at the pastry. Nul simply looked at his.

"Nul," Elmi whispered. "Eat it, it's fine. I promise."

She tried to reassure him with a smile, and he began to nibble it slowly.

Elmi took a piece of the loaf she had taken from the bag and stepped away, unable to watch as the children ate the chocolate. What did it taste like? Was it as good as it smelled? The sweetest thing she had ever tasted was plain pastry. Her stomach rumbled.

She left the children to their food and stepped into the kitchen. Everything in it had been torn out long ago, leaving spare piping and plain walls. Some of it was blackened, as though it had been burned.

The window was boarded up with thick, rotting wood, leaving only a few gaps looking out onto the cobbled street outside.

Elmi took a large bite from the bread and chewed it slowly, her stomach yearning to devour it. Then, something caught her eye.

Through the gap in the window, she saw something that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Years on the streets, protecting her brother first and then other innocent orphans, as well as herself, she had developed a sixth sense, constantly looking for dangers.

A man, tall and slender, in a dark brown hooded robe, stood on the opposite side of the cobbled street, looking intently at the house. His face was obscured in shadow.

Elmi swallowed. He was no passing stranger - he knew they were there. What did he want?

Suddenly, the man turned and walked away quickly, as though something had spooked him, disappearing up the street. Elmi was frightened, but she forced herself to calm down before returning to the others.

"Elmi?" Nul said, causing her to start. "What's wrong?"

Elmi exhaled.

"I'm fine," she said reassuringly, kneeling down and spotting the half eaten eclair in his hand. "You don't want it?"

"It's very sweet," he said. "I don't need all of it."

He held out the eclair and Elmi felt herself smiling.

"That's very kind," she said, taking it and inhaling its scent. Nul had always been kind, even spending his short life on the streets, in the cold. Even with what was happening to him. "Thank you. Come on, let's go and see what the others think."

Nul nodded and she led him away by the shoulders into the other room, with one last glance at the boarded up window.

The End

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