Despite the heat of the summer day, the alley behind The Rotten Rodent chilled as soon as the last rays of sunlight dipped below the horizon. Putrid puddles dotted the alleyway and the air was thick with gnats and flies. Rats and mice darted across the cobbled stones, sniffing the air for any signs of a meal. All the refuge bins stood stout and stalwart against the tavern’s outer wall, having been filled with the days’ discarded food and drink. All, except, for the one bin farthest from the tavern’s backdoor and right at the end of the alley where the ancient wood of the Rotten Rodent met with the stone wall of the city. That bin was shaking, tilting, and, occasionally, hopping around, as if possessed by some infernal spirit. Strange slurping, guzzling, chomping, and gobbling sounds punctuated each movement, adding to the sense that something not-of-this world had taken hold of the rubbish bin. Finally, as the last of the gas lights turned on, the bin grew silent and still. For a moment, there was no movement at all in the alley, save for a few buzzing flies. A large burp rattled the windows of the Rotten Rodent, breaking the silence and stunning a few flies. Three fat flies dropped from above the bin and onto the cobblestones. A small sigh followed the burp out of the top of the bin, which in turn was followed by two pink spiral horns, a mess of magenta matted curls, two pink ram horns, pink pointed ears, large black eyes, a tiny nose, and a small contented smile.
Following the smile, the rest of a strange, yet small, child climbed out of the bin. She wore a large tattered tunic that was covered in various stains and stray bits of dirt. The tunic engulfed her small frame, leaving her pink feet poking out from underneath. She possessed a thin tail that was tipped with a heart shaped spike. Her wild hair reached almost to the tip of her tail. As she stretched her arms up to the sky, she yawned, opening her mouth wide to reveal two sharp canines and one missing front tooth. She rubbed her eyes, scratched her bottom, and looked around the alley. Her eyes lacked any pupils and were the color of fresh black ink. She kneeled down to the cobbled stone ground and waited.
Not long after she kneeled, three white rats scurried towards her. They stopped an inch away from her knees and sat up on their hindlegs. They looked up at her, with bright red eyes, with the familiarity of a beloved pet. Gently, she patted each one on the head before rummaging underneath her tunic. She took out a dinner roll, bologna peppered with olives, and a slice of slightly moldy cheddar. None of the three rats stirred as she broke the dinner roll into three equal pieces and paired it with equal parts bologna and cheddar.
“Okay, dig in,” she said, placing the food gently on the cobblestones.
No sooner than she had spoken, the three white rats began to eat their dinner. Occasionally, one of the rats would look up at her kneeling figure and chitter a bit. This, without fail, would gain the rat a quick pat on the head from the child. As her pets ate, she scanned the alleyway for danger. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary – the tavern was bustling with the sounds of cooking, drinking, gossiping, and laughing. Due to her position at the far end of the alley, where the light of the gas lamps barely reached, none of the workers who would throw out trash noticed her presence. They came and went in a steady stream. Occasionally, she would check a can for a discarded bottle to drink from, but mostly she just kept watch over her pets and the alley. This was her favorite part of the night – her belly was full, her rats were happy, and the Rotten Rodent was busy as usual. Her tiny world was at peace.
Then, suddenly it wasn’t.
The Rotten Rodent had gone quiet. Silence alone is rarely terrifying – it can be even peaceful. Yet, in her limited time on this plane of existence, the child knew that sudden silence ment that danger was close by. The three rats stopped eating to look towards their benefactor. She was watching the tavern’s backdoor with an anxious curiosity. She turned to her rats and raised one finger to her lips. Then, quietly, sticking close to the shadows, she peeked into the nearest window.
Inside, every human, elf, dwarf, and humanoid creature of any sort was staring at the front door of the tavern. The front door was blocked from her view by a tattered curtain, so the child had to move to another window, closer to the back door. From her new vantage point, she saw five human men in black cloaks. Three of the men were holding large metal chains that connected to slave collars on three small girls – all younger than even she. The girls wore tan dresses with leather sandals. Their heads were shaven, revealing scars and pockmarks. The child in the alley did not recognize the girls but she knew what the men were – slavers.
She had successfully avoided slavers by sticking to the shadows, covering herself in dirt, and breathing without sound. Her experience with them, thus far, had involved watching and dodging. Nothing more, nothing less. However, all of the slavers she had met before dealt with adults – men, women, non-gendered adults. Never had she seen children chained up nor kicked around the way the one man closest to the bar kicked at his charge.
“Beer, now,” he said, after pushing the child towards the barkeep.
The barkeep, a red bearded dwarf, glared at the men and ignored the girl staring expectantly at him. The slaver who demanded beer stared back at the dwarf, holding the chain in his right hand while his left sat on the top of his dagger’s hilt. Neither he nor the barkeep blinked for a span of three deep inhales. Suddenly, the tallest of the three slavers rolled his pale blue eyes at his comrade before slapping the back of his head.
“For gods’ sakes Riley, get your own drink!” said the tall slaver.
Riley mumbled something under his breath as he shuffled to the barkeep. He was followed by the tall man and the other three slavers. The tall slaver stood at Riley’s left side, followed by the shortest one, and then the thinnest one. Trailing behind the four slavers, came a fat one, dragging the smallest of the girls alongside him on a very short chain. He stood next to Riley on the left of the bar.
“One … ” Riley began, “I mean…five beers.”
The barkeep poured out five mugs of beer and slid each one to a slaver, not breaking his gaze from the group. The tall one, the apparent leader of the group, met the dwarf’s stare with a mix of disinterest and contempt. Riley did not meet the barkeep’s gaze. Instead he placed 20 copper pieces on the counter, grabbed his beer, and chugged it down. He let out a sigh and turned to his leader.
“Phil, this ain’t half bad!”
The tall one called Phil grunted and sipped his beer.
While the slavers drank, the other patrons slowly made their way out of the tavern. Some stumbled over each other, keeping their eyes on the slavers, while others kept their eyes off the five men. Soon, there was just a sleeping bard in one corner, tired from playing for the crowd all night, the barkeep, the slavers, the slaves, and the little street child in the alley.
She had stopped watching the men and was now watching the three slaves. The one on the short chain connected to the fat slaver was scanning the ground, while the other two were looking at their feet. Riley’s slave stood the stillest of the three – the only indication that she was alive was her chest moving up and down with her shallow breaths. She stood close to Riley, between him and Phil. The thin man held the chain of the last girl, who swayed slightly. The girl in the alley thought the swaying slave might fall down at any moment.
Silently, the fat man’s slave knelt to the ground and picked up a tiny piece of bread. It was barely the size of a copper coin and had clearly been stepped on by patrons throughout the day. Before the girl could pop the morsel into her mouth, the fat slaver backhanded her across her face. He yanked on her chain, choking her until the bit of moldy bread flew out of her mouth and onto the floor. The slaver backhanded her again before flinging her to the floor. Trembling, she began to stand up. Her nose appeared broken and thin rivulets of blood began flowing from both nostrils.
“You little bitch! What did I say?! You eat when I tell you!” bellowed the fat slaver.
The others, apparently accustomed to the fat man’s outbursts, ignored the girl and continued drinking their beers. Only Phil seemed at all put off. He sipped his drink and looked down at the slave with a sideways glance and then glared at the fat man.
“Damn it, Jack…you damaged the merchandise,” he said, turning to the fat slaver.
“Hells bells, Phil, I didn’t even hit her that hard…”
While Phil and Jack discussed how to deal with the damaged goods, The girl in the alleyway began to feel sick. Not in the nauseous-because-she-just-ate-rotten-food sickness. No, this was different. Pressure had been building behind her eyes since Riley kicked at his slave. She was able to ignore the pain, but now her body began to feel hotter than a boiling pot. The pink child shook her head, her hair tangling up in her horns, her hands clucking both ears as if to block out the sound of the tiny slave’s soft sobs. Long forgotten scenes flashed before the child’s eyes: a woman on the ground begging for her child, a man with a long scar across his face holding a pink infant by its feet, a cleric praising patting the man on the back as the baby fell into a river. Inside the tavern, the bleeding slave gave out a sharp yelp. As if a switch was released, the girl in the alleyway went limp. Her body stood for a beat, still as a statue. Her tiny white rats went to foot and stood on their hind legs. Their noses twitched with worry. Then, without warning, the girl’s head jerked towards the door to the Rooten Rodent and her eyes, black as the New Moon, shone bright red as she ran to the door and flew it open, banging it against the side of the building. She entered the building on all fours, her tail in the air whipping violently above her thin frame. The barkeep, the slavers, and the slaves turned towards the girl.
Before the slavers had time to move, the demon child jumped up and kicked Jack square in the chest, the tiny black claws of her feet ripping his vest open and drawing blood. Jack stumbled back, knocking over his mug and falling to the floor. The little pink child did not relent and jumped onto his face and began clawing at Jack, furiously swiping as fast as she could.
Years later she would detail how her vision turned bright red, as if someone pulled a blood stain gauze over her eyes; she never heard Jack’s screams or the shouts of the other slavers. The only thing she heard was her heart beating at the same pace as her rapid fury swipes.
Phil got to the girl before she could rip out Jack’s eyes but not before she skinned his face, leaving fat and muscle exposed. The girl was thrown to the ground with enough force that she slid across the floor, hitting a table and a chair.
“Riley, see to Jack and make sure he ain’t dead. He still owes me money,” said Phil, as he drew a short sword and marched towards the prone child.
The child blinked away the pain in her head and began to scramble onto her feet. No sooner than she got to her knees did Riley’s black boot stomp her head back down to the floor. The boot stayed there. Pressing her face onto the filthy floorboards. She let out a growl as she felt the pressure on her head increase.
“What’s that? Some hellspawn? Barkeep, you keepin’ demons as guard dogs?” said Riley, from beside Jack’s body.
The tall slaver called Phil knelt down by the girl’s head. He looked at her with naked malice mixed with disgust. She was slowly losing consciousness and could not make out the slaver’s face. Her vision was turning into a blur of black, brown, and gray. She could smell the beer on his breath and the acrid smell of dried old blood.
“Let off the girl, boy,” said the barkeep, somewhere beyond the child and the slaver.
The girl heard the short yet firm steps of the dwarf approaching her before they stopped.
“Or what?” said one of the unnamed slavers. Metal sliding on leather could be heard underneath his words.
“I’m just warning you. Most people know not to hurt children in my bar. Weird things happen when grown men can’t keep their hands off kids,” said the dwarf.
“I’m getting mighty sick of you, you boulder brained…”
The sound of a lute plucked and tuned interrupted the slaver’s rant. It began softly, barely a whisper of a note, but then the music grew and spread until it filled the tavern. A low hum accompanied the lute, creating a wordless song that felt as soft as down and as warm as sunlight. The boot on the child’s head lifted as Riley turned towards the source of the sound, the darkest corner of the tavern. It was the corner closest to the alleyway and furthest from the bar. From that spot the music moved and the humming grew louder and closer until it was right in front of Riley. The child could not see anything at this point and her mind could barely hold onto another thought. Before her vision turned to black, she whispered, “pretty.”
When she woke up, she was no longer on the floor. Instead, she was in the dark corner booth by the alleyway. Her head was on top of a soft cotton cushion and her body was underneath a warm, clean, thick wool cape. She felt her head, gingerly with her hand, expecting it to hurt, the way it did when she hit the floor. However, there was no lingering sting and her fingers did not feel any bumps or scraps. Instead, a thick gauze met her finger tips. As she sat up she looked around the tavern. The slavers were gone but the three slaves were still there. They no longer had slave collars on and were busy eating from large plates on a table closest to the bar. The dwarf was refilling one of the girl’s pewter cups when he noticed the pink child from the alleyway.
“Oui! You’re awake. Benjamin! The pink one’s awake!” said the dwarf.
“Comin’” said a deep baritone voice from a doorway that stood behind the bar.
The man named Benjamin came out of the doorway, carrying another plate of savory smelling food. Eyes black as a new moon darted between the man named Benjamin, the dwarf, the girls, and the food. Five pairs of eyes, likewise, stared back at the pink child with the long thin tail. As Benjamin made his way to the child, humming a joyful tune, the little alleyway girl noted that he had skin the color of fresh mulch scattered underneath the trees in the park. He was as tall as the slaver called Phil, but with strong shoulders and dark hair growing across his muscular forearms. His eyes were silver and his teeth were like the polished marble at the local chapel. He wore a worn-out apron over his leather vest and white tunic. Overall, the pink child thought he looked like the type of man who had two children at home and a loving wife – the type of man who never looked at the child kindly, before.
Yet, there he was, smiling open face at a dirt covered orphan draped in his cloak.
“Why, hello, little flower,” he said, his voice sounding like honey soaked biscuits and tea.
She stared at him blankly as he placed the plate of food in front of her. He then sat by her right side, looking at her expectantly. She was too entranced by the food in front of her to meet his gauze. Mashed potatoes, buttered rolls, grilled carrots, boiled peas, steamed broccoli, and roast beef were piled high on the pewter plate. The child could feel her mouth water as the smell filled her lungs. Benjamin watched the child, amused by the effect the sight of his cooking had on her.
“Ay, ye scared me half to death with worry, child. Glad Benjamin here has some healing tricks up his sleeves,” said the dwarf as he set a glass of water next to the plate.
Startled, she instinctually scooted towards Benjamin.
“Oh, what’s this? Scared of Old McFarly, eh? Not scared of some slavers but scared of little old me? Ha!” said the dwarf as he slapped the table and laughed.
The three girls at the other end of the tavern giggled too and continued eating their meals.
“Nah, I think you just startled the little flower, Mick,” said Benjamin, “She must be so hungry she didn’t notice you.”
McFarly laughed and walked back to the front of the bar, leaving Benjamin and the child alone. She turned towards the plate and picked up a warm butter roll. It was larger than her hands and softer than any piece of bread she had ever picked out of the trash. Carefully, she took a bite. Her eyes lit up as she chewed and her mouth widened into a smile. The bread melted quickly in her mouth and the sweet buttery flavors spread from tooth to tonsil. She took larger bites of the bread, swallowing quickly and barely chewing.
“Hohoho, slow down. You might choke,” said Benjamin. He placed a hand gently on her back.
Finishing the bread, she reached for the cup and poured the clear clean water down her throat, gasping once the cup was empty. She then picked up a lump of mashed potatoes and popped it in her mouth. The potatoes were gone just as quick as the bread and she was left licking the remnants from her fingers.
“Here,” said Benjamin, holding out a spoon.
She picked it up, examined it, and began solving the peas, carrots, broccoli, and beef into her mouth – stopping to chew only when her mouth could not fit anything else. Benjamin watched her eat, his silver eyes shone warmly. When the plate was emptied and after she licked it clean, the girl began to gnaw on the plate, her sharp teeth leaving sizable imprints behind.
“Woah, no no no, that’s not food,” said Benjamin lifting the plate out of her hand. He laughed good heartedly and patted her on the head before setting the plate down.
She looked at the now emptied table and sighed. It was, by far, the best meal she had ever had in her life and as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. She found herself regretting how fast she ate when Benjamin spoke.
“Now,” he said, turning to her, “What’s your name, little flower?”
She paused. The memories that had plagued her earlier that evening did not hold any clues to her name, nor did they seem to stay long enough for her to examine. The afterimagines of her early life were already fading away.
“I don’t have one,” she said finally, her eyes falling to her lap, “but, can I ask you something, sir?”
“Of course!” said Benjamin.
“Why do you call me ‘little flower’?”
Benjamin bent his head down and placed his right hand on his chin, rubbing his scruff in thought. The word came naturally, as with most of the lyrics he wrote. He said what he saw, nothing more, nothing less. To him, the child draped in his cloak looked like a tiny precious flower. A flower with thorns and a big appetite but a flower nonetheless.
“Well,” he said finally, “you look like a flower to me.”
She looked up at him, a smile spreading across her face.
“Then, my name is Flower!” she said.