“Hey, Adahmri!”

A black-haired boy, around ten years of age, turned at the sound of his name, but then grimaced when he recognized the voice. It had been a peaceful week with Banrel and most of his posse away for the Autumn Equinox festival in the city. Adahmri and the other children of the orphanage had enjoyed the respite from the unwanted attention they received from these bullies. But Banrel had found Adahmri during his weekly walk out to Soragen’s Well, where he left small tithes to the God of Fortune on behalf of the Orphanage. It was poor timing, as usual.

Kicking out his legs, Adahmri jumped from his seat on the lip of the well. Banrel and his three teenage friends sprinted forward, realizing that the younger boy meant to flee. Adahmri slipped around the well and ran down the hill on the other side, ignoring the warning shouts behind him. As long as he had a fair lead on them, he could usually outrun the older boys. They were big and muscled, but he was quick. Still, they seemed to be especially hungry for an easy target today; he could hear that in their whoops and laughter as they gave chase.

Adahmri slanted to his right, hoping to use the steep slope of the next hill to keep them from cutting him off. But he was already short of breath, and he could hear their triumphant cries. They were drawing closer.

Over the crest of the hill, he spotted a familiar cottage down in the valley. Adahmri’s eyes widened hopefully. The town gates were too far away, but perhaps he could seek refuge at Sielahiel’s home. His pale cheeks flushed from running, he urged one last burst of energy to his legs. A figure stood outside the cottage, sweeping on the porch, and Adahmri cried out to get the young woman’s attention. His heart sang when his voice carried just far enough on the wind, and she turned to look toward him. He watched her lift her broom and march in his direction, but he couldn’t hear what she was shouting over the thumping pulse in his ears.

He thought that he had made it. Sielahiel was there; she had seen him! But she was still at the bottom of the hill, and a hand clapped hard on his shoulder. Adahmri lost his balance and toppled to the ground. His knee crashed into the grass and he cried out as he immediately spun down the hill several times. His elbows stung when he finally skidded to a stop, his face buried in a thick tuft of grass.

Raucous laughter gradually drew him out of his daze, and he struggled to push himself up onto his hands. His vision still swam, but he couldn’t just stay sprawled on the ground. The boy winced when a sharp pain shot down his leg from his knee. Had he broken something?

“What do ya think you’re doing, huh?” Banrel sneered from behind him. Adahmri screamed when a boot collided with his ribs, and he rolled onto his side to curl his body into a protective ball.

“You’re gettin’ slow!” one of Banrel’s companions said. Adahmri ignored them and lifted an arm to protect his head, just in case they wanted to keep kicking him. This would not be the first time he returned to the orphanage with a number of telling injuries. Adahmri idly wondered how many more excuses he could give Miss Inger before the woman stopped feeling any sympathy for him.

“Hey, she’s coming! We gotta go!”

Adahmri peeked around his arm to see one of the other boys tugging on Banrel’s arm. Banrel scowled and booted Adahmri once more before he ran off with the other boys. Adahmri groaned and just let his head fall back down on the grass as he nursed the new ache in his stomach from that last kick. After what seemed an eternity, the sound of heavy breathing reached his ears. He slowly looked toward Sielahiel, who had to pause, hands on her knees, to catch her breath. The hill was steep here and she was such a slight young woman. Her dark cheeks were flushed a deep crimson and her wiry brown hair was a frizzy mess under the scarf she wore to fend off the Autumn chill, but in that moment she was the most beautiful creature Adahmri had ever seen.

“Phew!” she cried when she finally reached him. She dropped to her knees next to him and let her broom fall down in the grass. Still panting, she put her hands over her skirts on her lap and leaned forward toward him. “Are you all right?”

He stared up at her green eyes, painfully aware of every ache in his scrawny body. Still, he propped himself up onto one bloody elbow and gave the young woman a crooked smile.

“Didn’t quite make it,” he said in a wavering voice he sorely wished sounded more confident. With a nervous chuckle, he wiped at his face and smeared blood from his nose all over his cheek. “They always win that one.”

Sielahiel regarded the boy skeptically. “Adahmri, how many times I have to tell you? That’s not a game they’re playing with you.” She offered him a delicate hand, which he took after wiping his grubby fingers off on his trousers. She stood and hauled him to his feet. “You keep pretending everything’s fine and they’ll just keep tearing into you.”

He wiped at his pants and tunic, lamenting the numerous grass stains he had gained in them. Miss Inger was going to be angry. After testing his weight on the leg that had hurt so much earlier, he decided he had just bruised it.

“Nothing I can do about it, Miss Sielahiel,” Adahmri said. He looked at her and smiled, as if it was his place to reassure her. “Thank you for coming over, though.”

She clicked her tongue disapprovingly and put her hands on her slender hips. “There’s plenty you can do about it, you stubborn boy. You are a special boy, you know. Never met anyone smart as you. That’s probably why they keep picking on you. Jealousy is strongest amongst the young, they say.”

“If they’re jealous, it’s just because I’m going to marry you one day!” he piped cheerily.

Sielahiel studied his earnest demeanor. Coupled with his bloody face and dirtied clothes, it was an endearing and amusing sight. She laughed lightly and cuffed him gently on his shoulder. He gave her a toothy grin.

“You just run on back to the orphanage. You’re gonna be all right,” she said.

He wiped at his face again and stood up straighter. “It’s always nice to see you,” he said politely.

“Mhm. Stay out of trouble, kiddo.” He turned to leave, but paused when she called out to him. “And I’ll be an old maid before you’re old enough to start asking girls to marry you, boy!”

His expression brightened, and he took off at a run after waving at her.

Well, she didn’t say no, he thought.

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Background Music: “Morgana” by Adrian Brooks.