Opening the door, Sian blinked as the early morning sunlight sparkled in her eyes. Although the sun had barely risen over the rooftops, there was a warmth enveloping her while the breeze that ruffled her hair was comforting. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky; it was going to be a glorious day in Dargon. She stepped outside, almost tripping over the brace of rabbits that lay waiting on the stoop.
“Again?” she asked aloud as she bent to retrieve them. They were still warm, so she knew they couldn’t have been there long. This was the tenth time in three sennights and she wondered who was leaving them there. “It can’t be anyone I know,” she thought in an attempt to determine who was leaving the rabbits. “It can’t be a friend,” she decided. They would have simply given her the rabbits, without resorting to such secrecy. “Maybe it *is* a friend,” she thought. Was someone having a little fun by making her try to guess? “Whomever you are,” she thought, “thank you for the extra meat.”
“Thank you,” she said aloud, wondering if the giver was near enough to hear her. She took the rabbits inside, placing them in a bucket. With a few vegetables and some herbs, they would make a tasty stew for supper. Footsteps on the wooden stairs made her turn to see Aren, the oldest of the children she cared for, yawning and running his fingers through his tousled sandy hair.
“Good morning,” she said with a bright smile, passing him the plate of bread and cheese she’d prepared for herself. “You’re early.”
“I know.” He grinned as she began to cut more bread. As he approached the table, he stopped and peered into the bucket. “More rabbits?” he said with a smirk. “Your admirer is generous.”
“Admirer!” Sian turned to him with hands on hips. “Get away with you! It’s probably just someone who wants to help us.”
“Ha!” Aren’s blue eyes sparkled with mischief. “More like someone who’s sweet on you. Like that man at the market who always gives you an extra fish.”
Sian couldn’t help but laugh. The fishmonger was old enough to be her father. He always said something along the lines of “For the little ‘uns,” as he wrapped the extra fish. It couldn’t be the fishmonger. Aren knew that, but it didn’t stop him teasing her whenever the chance arose.
“Never mind that,” she said with mock severity. “So, what brings you down from your bed so early?”
“I woke early, so I decided to start looking for work,” he replied with a shrug.
“I thought you were going to wait until Derill was ready for a new apprentice?” Sian frowned as she passed him a mug of hot tea. Aren had a talent for woodcarving and Derill, a furniture maker in Dargon’s commercial district, had promised him an apprenticeship.
“I know, but that won’t be for another year,” Aren shrugged. “I need something to do now, so I can pay for mine and Kerith’s keep.”
“You know that you don’t have to pay for your keep.” Sian sighed as she settled opposite him with her breakfast. “I’m not rich, but I have money enough to keep us all fed and clothed.”
“You help us,” he reasoned, “So why shouldn’t I help you if I can? Besides, I’m fourteen now; whoever heard of someone my age not working? Even the shadow boys are working the streets by that age.”
Sian could see from the stubborn light in his blue eyes that he wouldn’t be swayed. “So what do you want to do?” she asked. “And the shadow boys aren’t a very good example. They live on the street because they don’t have a home. And their work is stealing,” she told him.
“I didn’t mean I want to do what the shadow boys do,” he said quickly. It’s just that I don’t know what to do, but I’m sure I can do something. I could work at an inn, or at the marketplace. Anything really.”
“Fair enough,” she nodded, taking a bite of bread. She wasn’t sure that she would be able to accept money from him, but that problem could be addressed if and when he actually did find work. “Well, hadn’t you better hurry? There’s a big market today and plenty of inns for you to try,” she suggested.
“I’ll go and wash,” he said, rising from his seat. “Shall I call the others?”
Sian looked down at her empty plate, then back at Aren with a wry smile. Like every day, her time to enjoy a quiet breakfast had evaporated. “Yes, you better,” she sighed. “And make sure that Finn doesn’t go back to sleep. You know what he’s like.”
Aren gave her a wide grin and took the stairs two at a time as Sian began cutting more bread and cheese. As the other children came downstairs, she gave each a plateful. With that done, she went outside to fetch water from the pump in the yard. On seeing a stout, dour-faced woman already at the pump, she grimaced. Not wanting her day to be ruined, though, she smiled, and set herself to make the best of things.
“Good morning, Elise,” she said, approaching the pump. “How are you faring? How is Tom? It looks as though it will be a fine day for washing.”
“Well don’t you think you’re using my lines, Sian Allyn,” the woman scowled. Her face looked as if it wanted to sag as far towards the ground as it could get. Her chin doubled over itself and her cheeks wobbled and jiggled as she talked. “And you needn’t worry about my son, Tom. He’s a fine boy who works hard and keeps out of trouble! Now, I’ve a cart-load of washing to do myself, so I’ll be needing all the space I can find.”
“I wouldn’t think of using your lines,” Sian forced herself to continue smiling, “In fact, I hadn’t planned on washing today, so if it would help, you could use my lines as well as your own.”
“Humph.” Elise Madden gave her a look that would have made a lesser woman run and hide, but Sian held her ground and kept her smile fixed firmly in place. “And have those unruly brats of yours putting their scruffy hands all over my clean sheets? No thank you! I’ll keep to my part of the yard; you just make sure those ruffians of yours keep to theirs.” With those words, Elise picked up the two buckets she had filled, stuck her nose in the air and set off across the yard to her own back door.
“Old flinger,” she mumbled as she hung her pot over the spout and began pumping. There was a time when Elise had been a good neighbor. That had been when Tom came over to play and Elise hadn’t cared. In truth, Elise hadn’t minded any children playing in her yard. She had changed when Sian began taking in homeless children.
Sian had once lived on Dargon’s streets and had been adopted by the old couple she thought of as her mother and father. They had treated her like she was their own blood daughter. When they had died, three years ago, they had left their house and all their money to her, much to the dismay of their blood-kin. It was then that Sian had made her decision to try to help other homeless children, to repay the love and kindness of the old couple. Her neighbors, Elise especially, didn’t agree. According to Elise, she was asking for trouble by bringing in orphans and *beggar-brats*.
Sian shook her head angrily as she finished pumping. Anyone would think that the children were criminals, the way these people treated them. They weren’t perfect, but what children were? She remembered the tricks she and Tom had played when they were younger, but then Elise appeared to have conveniently forgotten all that. Tom, too, by the way he acted these days.
Sian picked up her pot with a shrug. There was nothing she could do but try to keep the children out of trouble and to be as pleasant as she could with her neighbors, despite their provocative comments. Perhaps they’d come around in time. As she approached her door, she thought of the rabbits and couldn’t help grinning to herself. There was at least one thing she knew for certain: Elise Madden was not her mysterious benefactor.
As she entered the house, the children were finishing their breakfast. Finn, a scrawny, copper-haired boy of eleven, was clearing the table, humming cheerily to himself. Sian was immediately suspicious. Finn never did anything without being told, nor was he ever this cheerful so early in the morning. She looked to the others, her eyebrows raised in question. Briam, a short, stocky boy with brown eyes and hair, was doing his utmost to suppress a grin, while Kerith, Aren’s younger sister, was giggling behind her hand.
“All right, you scamps,” Sian said in her best stern voice, “what do you find so amusing?” Finn turned towards her, his freckled face a picture of innocence.
“Nothing, Sian, honest,” he said, his hazel eyes wide with a sparkle of impish delight. “I just thought I’d give you a hand with the dishes, that’s all.” Kerith spluttered behind her hand, while Briam’s neck went scarlet as he seemed to find his empty plate fascinating.
Sian looked around, searching the room for signs of mischief, but she could find nothing out of place. The clothes she had dried by the fire the night before were still folded in their basket by the door; the logs were still in a neat pile by the side of the hearth; the rabbits were sitting on the table; her broom was still in its place in the corner …
“The rabbits are sitting on the table?” she thought. “That can’t be.” She looked again and there they were in the middle of the table, just sitting there looking at her. Frowning, she rushed over to take a closer look, and found that they had been propped up against the water jug. The three children erupted into loud laughter as she picked them up and placed them back in the bucket.
“Very funny, Finn Harlen!” she said, giving him another stern look, this time with her hands on her hips. “Just for that you can clean them for me.”
“Aww, Sian!” Finn’s face fell. “I hate that messy task!”
“You should have thought about that before you decided to make a jester out of me,” Sian retorted. “And as for you two,” she turned and scowled. “Briam can peel and chop the vegetables and Kerith can wash the dishes.” Amid groans from all three children, Sian picked up her broom and moved to the foot of the stairs. “I’m going to make the beds and sweep the upstairs floors now,” she told them. “So no more of your trickery, do you hear?”
“Yes Sian,” they chorused gloomily.
“Good,” she said, suppressing a smile of her own. “Now, if it’s all done by the time I come back down, you can all go out into the yard and play for a while, but if it’s not, I’ll find you some more work.” She climbed the stairs, smiling as she heard scrambling and the clattering of dishes behind her. They would complete their tasks quickly and with little argument now.
Making the beds and tidying the upstairs rooms took her a little longer than she expected, especially the room Finn shared with Briam and Aren. Aren’s part of the room was quite neat, and Briam’s wasn’t too bad, except that his nightshirt was on the floor. But she wondered how Finn managed to make such a mess every day. He was rarely in the room between breakfast and supper, and yet he somehow managed to make it look as though a whole family had been shut in there for a month. All his clothes were scattered over his bed, which was full of crumbs, there was candle-wax all over his night-stand, and he had managed to splash water from his washbowl onto the bed and the floor. Cleaning it all had taken her so long that she had barely begun to sweep the floor when Finn called up from downstairs.
“Sian! There’s someone at the door. We’ve finished our work, can we go out now?”
“You can wait until I’ve seen that you’ve done the work properly,” she called back, placing the broom in the corner of the room. “And if there’s someone at the door, for goodness’ sake answer it!” As Sian reached the bottom of the stairs, Finn was leading someone into the back room.
“Lieutenant Darklen!” she smiled, genuinely pleased. “Is this a friendly visit, or have you come to arrest Finn?” She laughed softly as Finn’s cheeks paled. Kalen Darklen, lieutenant of the town guard, raised an eyebrow, his dark eyes full of amusement as he looked at Finn, who was staring at his feet as though by doing so he might render himself invisible.
“No, not this time,” Kalen laughed, “although I am keeping an eye on him. Actually, I’ve just come off duty and I thought I’d see how my young pickpocket was doing before I went home to bed.”
“Briam?” Sian looked towards the boy, beckoning him over and placing an arm around his shoulder. Finn took the opportunity to silently shuffle out of the room as the attention shifted to Briam. “He’s fine, aren’t you Briam?” Briam nodded, looking up at Kalen with something akin to adoration in his wide brown eyes. Kalen smiled and ruffled his hair before turning his attention back to Sian.
“There’s been no problem with …?”
Sian shook her head. Kalen had found Briam trying to pick a man’s pocket in the market. It had seemed that the boy was new to thieving as he had not been very good at it. He had been in the care of his grandmother, who had recently died, and rather than let Dargon’s less savory characters get their hands on him, Kalen had brought him to Sian’s house.
“I think you found him just in time,” she said, her tone serious. She remembered Aren’s friend Jal, who hadn’t been so lucky in avoiding the attentions of Dargon’s criminals. “Although I’ve kept him close to the house up to now, just to be on the safe side.”
“Good,” Kalen nodded, “I don’t think you’ll have any problems. If anyone had taken an interest in him they’d have come looking for him by now.” He looked to Briam again, who had flushed deep red as they discussed the circumstances of his arrival at Sian’s house. “You just make sure you do as Sian tells you, lad,” he said, his tone a little more stern. “I don’t want any cause for me to regret bringing you here instead of taking you to the guardhouse.”
“Yes sir,” Briam said, his eyes moistening at the mention of the guardhouse. “I mean … I won’t … I mean …”
“Lieutenant Darklen knows what you mean,” Sian grinned as the boy’s color deepened even more. “Would you like some tea?” she asked Kalen. As the lieutenant shook his dark head apologetically, Finn appeared behind him. Holding up a freshly cleaned rabbit, Finn pointed to Kalen and smiled.
“I can’t stay,” Kalen explained, raising his hand to cover a yawn. “It’s been a long night and I really need to get some sleep. I’m grateful for what you’re doing with him. If there’s ever any trouble …”
“Don’t worry,” Sian grinned, trying to suppress laughter. Finn was making the rabbit hop in the air towards Kalen. “You’ll be the first person I’ll come looking for.”
“Good-bye then,” he nodded. Finn quickly ran away as Sian led Kalen to the door. “I’ll call again soon, and if I can’t, I’ll send one of my men. It won’t hurt for people to see members of the guard here now and then.”
Sian nodded. If anyone was watching Briam, then they would soon lose interest if it meant coming up against the city guard. Closing the door, she yelled, “Finn!”
“Kalen can’t be the one,” she thought as she went into the kitchen. “He would just have given them outright to me. Oh, Stevene’s mouth,” she mentally cursed. “Who’s giving me these rabbits! If it isn’t Kalen and it isn’t the fishmonger and it isn’t Elise and …” An idea started to form in her mind. What was it Aren told her? Something about paying his keep.
Can it be Aren? Or one of the other children?”
“It could be him,” Finn said, in the way of an apology.
“It could be the Stevene himself, too,” Sian said sternly, all the while looking closely at Finn. “Can it be one of the children?” she thought.
“Can we go out now?” Finn asked, attempting to change the subject. “Look, it’s all done. I put the rabbits in the pot with the vegetables Briam chopped.”
“And all the dishes are clean and back in cupboard,” Kerith said, appearing from the other room, her blue eyes hopeful. Sian looked in the pot. They had even added the water and hung it over the fire to cook. All it needed now was a few herbs.
“Go on then,” she said, “but mind you keep away from Mistress Madden’s washing, do you hear?”
“Yes, Sian,” all three called out together as they ran outside.
After cleaning the downstairs rooms, Sian took the childrens’ clean clothes upstairs to put them away. She had just finished when she heard a knock at the back door, followed by a voice she recognized.
“Hello, anyone here?”
“Be with you in a moment, Rachel,” she called, closing the lid of Kerith’s clothes chest. “Another visitor,” she thought. “The way things are going today, I’ll be lucky to finish my daily chores.” Then again, Rachel was a good friend, and friends came before chores. She had met Rachel and her friend Eileen through Finn. Eileen’s son Matthew and his friend Ben had befriended Finn while he was living on the streets. Matthew and Ben often stopped by to visit. Rachel had accompanied them on one such visit and she and Sian had quickly become friends.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw Rachel pouring herself a mug of water from the jug on the table.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Rachel smiled, pushing her short blonde hair back from her forehead before taking a large gulp of water. “It’s warm and dusty out there.”
“Of course I don’t,” Sian said. “In fact I was just about to make myself some tea before calling the children in. Would you like some?”
Rachel shook her head regretfully. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m on my way to work. I called because they need a pot-boy at the Golden Lion and I thought of Finn.”
“Finn?” Sian laughed. “You have to be joking! He’d have the place in an uproar in half a bell!” Then she sobered. “Seriously though, Rachel, it’s good of you to think of him, but I don’t think he’s quite ready for the responsibility of paid work yet. I don’t think the Golden Lion is the right place for Finn.”
“Maybe not,” Rachel sighed. “I should have known really, considering all the mischief he gets himself into. Oh well, I’m sure they’ll find someone soon enough.”
“There is Aren,” Sian remembered. “He wants something to do until Derill is ready to apprentice him. He mentioned that he might like to work at an inn.”
“Really?” Rachel said. She took another deep draught of the water before continuing. “Then I’ll put in a good word for him. Sensible lad, Aren, I’m sure he’d make a good pot-boy; and he wouldn’t end up losing half his wages every sennight to pay for breakages …”
“Unlike Finn,” Sian finished for her with a grin.
“So what’s in the pot?” Rachel asked, sniffing appreciatively.
“Rabbit stew,” Sian replied with a wry smile.
“Again?” Rachel’s eyes widened. “How many times is this?”
“At least eight,” Sian replied.
“And you still don’t know who’s leaving them?”
Sian shook her head. “No, I have no idea. Whoever it is doesn’t want me to know who they are. I’m up with the sun and they’re always gone by then.”
“You have a secret admirer,” Rachel smiled, filling the mug with more water. “Some handsome young man might be trying to get your attention.”
“By leaving dead rabbits?” Sian laughed. “Who in their right mind would do that? Who would want the attention of a woman with four children to care for? Besides, if he really wanted to attract my attention, he wouldn’t be so secretive. What reason could there be for that?”
“Perhaps he’s shy.” Rachel teased after draining the mug. “I recall one of the children saying James took an interest in you.”
“You’re as bad as Aren,” Sian scowled. “James is married and he had an interest in me when we were young. All of us around here played together then. There was me and James and Beth and Tom and Gilly. I think it’s just someone who wants to help us.”
“Then why the secrecy?”
Sian’s reply was drowned out by a loud cry from outside that made both women jump. Sian groaned.
“Finn?” Rachel’s eyebrow raised.
“More than likely,” Sian sighed. The voice had been Elise Madden’s.
“Straight,” Rachel said with a grin as both women moved towards the door. “I have to go anyway.”
Sian waved hurriedly to her friend as she rushed out into the yard.
“Look at the state of this!” Elise appeared beside her, brandishing a very soiled, torn bed-sheet. “Ruined, it is! I told you to keep those brats of yours under control, Sian Allyn!”
“I’m truly sorry Mistress Madden,” Sian began, biting back the angry retort that formed on hearing the word ‘brats’, although she felt her cheeks flush. “What happened?”
“What happened?” Elise screeched, her narrow face dark with rage. “What happened? That carrot-headed troublemaker of yours is what happened! Uncontrollable, that’s what he is.” Elise thrust the torn sheet under Sian’s nose. “Look at it! If he were mine I’d soon have him in line. My Tom would never had done something like this! That brat of yours needs to feel a switch across his backside. That’d soon have him behaving himself!”
“And what exactly has Finn done?” Sian asked, fighting the urge to take a switch to her neighbor.
“He got tangled up,” Kerith interrupted, earning herself a look from Elise’s dark, angry eyes. She edged closer to Sian, grabbing hold of her dress as though for protection. “We were playing hide and seek and Briam was chasing him and he got tangled up in the sheet. He didn’t mean to tear it. It was an accident. Then Mistress Madden came out and started shouting.”
“And where is Finn now?” Sian asked.
“Hiding in the privvy with Briam.”
Sian took hold of Kerith’s hand and marched towards the privvy, yanking the door open. “Out!” she snapped at the two sheepish-looking boys. Both reluctantly came out into the sunshine, their heads held low.
“He wants a good spanking,” Elise had joined them by now, still clutching her ruined sheet. “They all do. You let them run wild, Sian Allyn.”
“I’ll be the judge of who needs a spanking,” Sian said, feeling the anger rise again. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain calm. It would only make matters worse if she lost her temper now. “Finn, apologize to Mistress Madden.” Finn mumbled something without raising his head.
“Do it properly, Finn!” Sian was becoming exasperated. The boy could find trouble even when it was hiding from him!
“I’m sorry, Mistress Madden,” Finn said, still not lifting his head.
Sian turned to Elise, doing her best to look apologetic. “I’ll pay for a new sheet,” she said. “In the meantime, if there are any chores you need doing, Finn will be only too happy to try to make amends.”
“If you think I’m letting that … that ruffian near my house you’ll need Cephas himself to plead his case!” Elise snorted. “Just keep him away, or he’ll be sorry.” Again, Elise prevented Sian’s reply by walking away.
“Straight,” Sian told the children. “Inside. And don’t think you’re going out to play again today. This sennight in fact. I can’t turn my back for a moment!”
As Sian was serving supper, Aren came through the door, looking tired, although he was grinning broadly.
“I was beginning to worry,” Sian said, gesturing him over as she ladled stew into a bowl for him. “What took you so long?”
“I went to the Golden Lion,” he said breathlessly, taking the bowl from her, along with a hunk of warm bread. “Rachel was there. They gave me a trial as pot-boy.”
“And?” Sian prompted as he went to sit at the table with the others.
“I start tomorrow,” he replied through a mouthful of bread. “First thing.”
Sian smiled to herself as she filled her own bowl with stew. She would have to make sure he was awake early. It seemed strange, thinking of Aren going out to work. He had only been with her for a little under a year, but he had grown up a lot in that time. “We’ll see if he’s the one leaving the rabbits,” Sian thought. “Working at the inn, he won’t have the time to hunt and leave them. So if I stop getting the rabbits, I’ll know it was Aren. If not, then it has to be one of the other children. But who? No, it has to be Aren.”
When all the children were in bed, Aren included, Sian collapsed in her rocking chair by the fire. It had been a long day, and a trying one at that. Her head was throbbing, and she yawned. She looked at the pile of dishes on the table and grimaced. She yawned again and tried to force her eyes to stay open. There were dishes to do, and she had to mix the dough for tomorrow’s bread. Another yawn and this time she let her eyes stay closed. The dishes could wait a few menes, just while she had a little rest.
She awoke with a stiff neck to find that the fire had gone out and the lamp on the table was flickering, almost out of oil. She stood, groaning as she stretched to try to get rid of the cramp in her legs and back. She didn’t know what time it was, but it was still dark outside, so perhaps she might manage a bell or two in her bed. The dishes and everything else could wait until morning. She filled the lamp before it could go out completely and moved towards the stairs. A noise made her stop short. It came from near the back door and she tiptoed over. The rabbit-giver! Now she’d catch Aren in the act! The young scamp should have been in bed! At the next noise she pulled the door open, holding out the lamp to see if her suspicions were true. A young man, bent in the act of laying a brace of rabbits on the doorstep, looked up at her, his expression one of guilty shock.
“Tom Madden!” Sian said in shock.
“Ssssh!” he hissed, collecting his wits. He straightened and bolted past her into the house, gesturing wildly for her to close the door. “My mother!”
“Exactly!” Sian cried. “Your mother! So why are you leaving rabbits on my doorstep?”
Tom looked at the floor for a moment, his face hidden from view by his thick, dark hair. “We were friends once,” he said as he raised his head, his grey eyes pleading.
“Yes we were,” Sian nodded. “But you’ve spent the last couple of years ignoring me.”
“You know what mother’s like,” he sighed, his shoulders hunching. “I wanted us to stay friends, but she wouldn’t hear of it, not after you started taking those kids in. I have to live with her, you know.”
“I know,” Sian said, smiling, although her eyes were brimming with tears. She had missed Tom’s friendship. Elise Madden’s dislike of her caring for homeless children had robbed her of her best friend. “So, about the rabbits?”
“I just wanted to help,” he said with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “I think what you’re doing with those kids is good, but mother would have a fit if I said that.”
“So you decided to sneak around and leave me rabbits on my doorstep?”
“I thought you’d appreciate a little extra meat,” he said. “I couldn’t think of anything else that wouldn’t send mother into a fury.”
“I do appreciate it, Tom,” Sian told him, placing her hand on his arm. “I’d appreciate having my old friend back a whole lot more, though.”
“I suppose I could try to drop by now and again,” he suggested hopefully. “Mother often goes to visit my aunt on Thockmarr Street. I could come and see you then.”
“I’d like that,” Sian smiled. “Now you’d better get home before she finds you missing. How do you manage to sneak out, anyway?”
“Same old way,” he grinned. It was a grin Sian had missed seeing, although she hadn’t realized how much until that moment. “Do you remember?”
“I do,” she laughed. “Although I wonder she hasn’t figured it out by now. Father caught me the first time I tried it.”
“That’s because you’re a girl and girls are no good at climbing ropes.”
“Why, you …” she felt her color rise, then seeing him grinning she shook her head with a laugh. He always had known how to make her rise to the bait.
As she watched him climbing the rope to his bedroom window, she almost laughed. Tom was the last person she would have suspected of being her mysterious benefactor. Yet he was the most likely. It was exactly the kind of thing he would do. It would be good to have him back in her life again. She turned to go back inside, then remembered the rabbits. She bent to pick them up from the stoop and as she rose she saw that the sky was beginning to lighten. She sighed. So much for bed.