Last time I talked to you, you were lonely and out of place. You were looking down on me lost out in space We laid underneath the stars, strung out and feeling brave.
Tyves 16th, 1513 – Outskirts of River Sulis, Lothianshire, Albion
This is all my fault. Anna-Marie thought as she shoved the door open and spilled herself out into the dying summer sunlight. What if something happened to him? She thought she knew where Elias was, but what if he wasn’t there? She picked up her skirts to run just a little faster. She had to find him!
Earlier that morning…
“Climb up my apple tree. Slide down my rainbow into my cellar door.” Elias was better at clapping games than Gretchen was, but not quite as good as Starla. Of course there were all sorts of boys who would give him all sorts of hell if he ever played clapping games at school, so usually Anna-Marie had to make due with Gretchen. Boys were supposed to play boys games. And girls were supposed to play girl games. And the less they had to do with each other the better.
Which was dumb to Anna-Marie, all you had to do was look at the older kids, holding hands in the schoolyard or trying to sneak off to go snog in the woods to know that while apparently boys and girls were supposed to find each other icky, it would only be a few years before you went from supposedly gross boys trying to scare you with frogs (was it weird that Anna-Marie sorta liked frogs?) to no longer gross boys trying to stick their tongues in your mouth. That sounded a lot more icky than the frogs to Anna-Marie.
But the older girls didn’t mind, so as weird as the whole tongue thing seemed to be, apparently you got over it.
Anna-Marie was glad that Elias had come over to play today. Something was going on, she could see him at the edge of the boys’ area of the playground, by the “castle” and the monkey bars–which the Reman kids sometimes called the Albion bridge for whatever reason–hands clenched into fists, or slumped against a tree staring at his shoes.
But she couldn’t go over to the boy’s section and pester whatever it was out of him, even if Elias had been her friend since they were both in nappies. Even Anna-Marie had some basic idea of the playground rules, even if she didn’t like most of them.
Still, now they weren’t on the playground and she could pester him as much as she she wanted to. Now she just needed an opening.
Anna-Marie realized someone one was coming up behind her right before she heard shoes hitting the paving stones. Elias’ sorta cringed and took his eyes away from the game.
“Are you playing a clapping game?” Like a girl?” A sneering voice that made Anna-Marie’s teeth grit. “Like a baby?”
“I am a girl, Romeo.” Anna-Marie got to her feet and dusted back of her dress off.
“He ain’t.” Romeo Rose, the bane of the classroom and playground, was still sneering when he walked around Anna-Marie and pushed Elias in the chest. “Unless you’re still in nappies under that.” He pushed Elias again.
“I’m not in nappies!” Elias protested.
“Of course you ain’t.” Anna-Marie agreed. What kinda butthead was Romeo anyway? How did it make you flashy to do something as stupid as accuse someone of still wearing diapers? “But Romeo might be.”
The two boys looked at Anna-Marie in near identical confusion. “He might?”
“Well, he probably hasn’t got the brains to hit the pot.” Anna-Marie crossed her arms over her chest. “My mama says some of the really addle-pated people at the hospitals wear nappies.”
“What do you know about brains, you’re a girl?” Romeo’s sneer returned.
“I know lotsa girls with brains, Romeo Rose. Enough to know if you got any, they’re drowning in stupid an’ mean.” Anna-Marie told the other boy.
“Leave Anna-Marie alone.” Elias said as Romeo reared back like he was about to hit her. “Nobody wants you here, Romeo.”
“Yeah, cause I’m a boy an’ all that’s ‘llowed around is girls an’ babies.” Romeo said, giving Elias another shove before putting moose ears above his head and wagging his butt back and forth like a dog. Anna-Marie was half tempted to tell him that–or to give him another Sminese burn–and still deciding which it was when he shoved Elias a third time. “Cry-crybaby-cry cry.” He sing-songed before running off the way he came.
“I ain’t a crybaby!” Elias called after him, though his voice was cracking all over the place and he sounded like he might cry any minute. Stupid Romeo. Anna-Marie scowled for a moment. She gave him a hug. Even if that was kinda a girl thing to do.
“Romeo’s got pigeon poop in his head.” Elias didn’t even smile at that. “Didja see it, last rainstorm, he was on the castle playin’ and he went and tried to run across the playground and slid on the mud under the monkey bars.”
“Yeah. I saw. But doesn’t matter how many times he shows he’s a big dummy, people still laugh at him.” Elias muttered toward his shoes.
“Aye, they laugh at him. My grampa says people do two kindsa laughin’ at people. They laugh with ‘em, cause they’re funny or clever or whatevernot, or they laugh at ‘em. Which is cause they think they’re all flashy an’ clever.” Anna-Marie told him. “I’m pretty sure that they’re mostly laughin’ at Romeo.” That got her no response other than a slight shrug of the shoulders. Okay, different tactic. She thought.
“You ever heard the Reman kids callin’ the monkey bars an Albion bridge?” He nodded. “You know why they call it that?” She bit her lip.
“Phooey.” Anna-Marie said.
“They’re saying people from Albion aren’t smart enough to walk on their feet.” Anna-Marie’s mother said from behind her. “What was going on out here?” Anna Marie looked at Elias who ducked his head.
“It was jist big dumb Romeo, being a dummy.” Anna-Marie said.
“Elias?” Mama asked the boy. “Is something wrong?” He shook his head fast. “Would you like to stay for lunch?” He shook his head again. “My papa’ll expect me home for lunch.” He said. “I’ll see you later, Anna-Marie.” He said before he ran off toward his house.
“You should tell somebody.” Anna-Marie told Elias looking up at him from the front porch at the Butcher’s home.
“That’s tattling.” Elias kicked the base of one of the stone columns. “Besides, who would I tell?”
“What about your papa?” Anna-Marie asked. He shook his head.
“He’s too busy at the shop to bother with something as dumb as this.” Elias told her. “An–” he stopped with a shrug.
“Well, then what about your…” It occurred to her after it was half out of her mouth and too late to shove it back inside that it was the wrong thing to say. That that was what his eyes had been begging her not to bring up. He took off into the house. Her manners warred for a moment with her desire to fix what her mouth had gotten her into. She hadn’t, strictly speaking, been invited in, but she wasn’t gonna let that stop her as she clambered up onto the porch and tore off toward Elias’ room after him.
Elias was standing by the quilt that his mother had made him his head bowed and face buried in his hands.
“Elias?” Anna-Marie asked.
“She’s not my mama, Anna-Marie! I don’t got a mama no more!” He sobbed into his hands. “An’ Romeo’s right. I am a crybaby.”
“You ain’t. I’d cry to if my mama were gone.”
“You’re a girl.”
“Y’think?” Anna-Marie growled at little tired of everyone pointing that out. Her being a girl had about as much relevance in this situation as the price of tea in Smina did. “Are you really gonna listen to a dummy like Romeo? An’ even if your step-mama ain’t your mama, she likes you. She’d help.”
“She’s too busy with the twins to care about me.” Elias told her. That didn’t sound right. His half brother and sister were about the same age as Johnny and as far as Anna-Marie could tell, about a quarter of the trouble. Not one in all the times she’d come and visited the Butchers had she seen either Kian or Violet running around naked as a jaybird swinging their braises over their head.
Mrs. Butcher always had time to offer Anna-Marie a shortbread and some tea and ask how things were going. But sometimes things looked different than they were. Darry and Sara-Beth were always happy when they’d come for dinner, but she knew that her mama was worried about Sara-Beth and that Darry and Sara-Beth fought a lot. Maybe this was kinda sorta the same thing.
Okay, if telling somebody wasn’t gonna help, she needed another plan.
“Well, if we can’t tell your mama and papa–” She leaned over and whispered her plan in Elias’ ear.
“I got a bad feeling about this,” Elias said.
“I don’t care if you’re a girl or a cry baby, but if you’re gonna be a chicken, we’re gonna have words.” Anna-Marie pushed open the heavy metal gate her slippers seeming to echo back at her from the walls of the little hallway that lead to a second metal gate.
“Come! on!” Anna-Marie told him as they stepped into the courtyard of the house. Still, she did sort of wonder at her own daring as they approached the wooden door. “It is this one, isn’t it?”
“I dunno. Maybe we shouldn’t…”
“Unless some sort of wicked witch lives in the wrong side of the house an’ is gonna eat us if we knock on the wrong door, they’ll just tell us to go next door.” Anna Marie told him, squaring up her shoulders and rapping on the door. Her papa had told her that Romeo’s papa was a guardsman, that should’ve made him a good person. Hopefully he’d give them the chance to explain.
A moment later, a man in a dark suit opened the door and stepped out into the courtyard. “Mister–er–are you Guardsman Rose?”
“Aye.” Guardsman Rose looked puzzled for a short moment, then his face cleared. “You’d be Elias Butcher–and you’d be… Raven and Eric’s little girl, wouldn’t you?”
“Aye, sir.” Anna-Marie said. Elias didn’t say anything.
“Well, Miss Osmont, what can I do for you?” If that wasn’t an opening, she’d eat her best sunhat. And she told him. Told him about how Romeo had been bullying Elias–how he’d come over seemingly only to tease them–about how he was being a general jerk. And if her voice shook, just a little, as she told it. Well, she was a fairly newly minted eight.
“Please, come inside and sit. I’m going to go get Romeo.” Guardsman Rose said at the end of Anna-Marie’s recitation. Was that good or bad? Anna Marie bit her lip but headed into the cool interior of the house with Elias trailing reluctantly after her as Guardsman Rose headed up the stairs.
She moved over to the whitewashed wood sofa with the orange cushion and sat down with an experimental bounce. Elias, she noticed, was sitting on one of the chairs by the door.
“I’m pretty sure–cause we were invited in–that we can come in a bit further than that.” Anna-Marie told him. He hadn’t said a word since she’d opened the courtyard gate. That–wasn’t good was it?
He slid off the chair and–slunk–more than walked to the sofa before sitting down next to her with obvious reluctance.
“What do you think is gonna happen?” Elias whispered.
“Um, dunno.” Anna-Marie said, then a moment later, the door opened. Guardsman Rose walked in with Romeo trailing behind him rather as Elias had trailed behind Anna-Marie.
“These two children have just been telling me about your behavior at school, Romeo.”
“I bet they’re not.” Romeo’s papa said with a shake of his head.
“Why would you believe them rather th’n me?” Romeo asked sullenly.
“Because I didn’t say what they’d been telling me. It could have been good. But if you’d been being good, you wouldn’t have immediately told me they were lying.” The guardsman told his son.
“Ma says you’re not ‘posed to use that trickery guardsman stuff on us.” Romeo said.
“Well, then I guess your mother will just yell at me.” Guardsman Rose said flatly. “Have you been bullying kids and teasing them, Romeo.”
“No! It ain’t bein’ a bully to tell a crybaby he’s bein’ one. That’s what ma calls speakin’ plain.”
“That may be what your mother calls speaking plain, but I call it being a bully and as long as you live under my roof you’ll abide my rules as well as your mother’s.”
“Ma says…” Romeo trailed off as he looked at his father’s face. “What do I haveta do?”
“Apologize to Elias and stop doing it for a start.” The guardsman said.
“‘M sorry.” Romeo said to Elias. “I won’t do that no more. G’me a shake on it?” Elias looked at Anna-Marie who nodded and slid off the couch. The two boys shook.
“Anna-Marie! Elias!” Romeo called as they were walking away from the house. He ran up the corridor after them. “Thanks, you stupid tattling crybabies! Now ‘m gonna have to do double chores until Hybel all cause you had to tell my pa cause you can’t take a joke.”
She probably should’ve guessed. As her gramama liked to say “a tabby cat can’t change it’s stripes.” A bully like Romeo would probably always be a bully.
“A course you’d come tell my pa, y’ain’t got no ma, no more an’ yer pa prob’ly don’t love you no more cause he gots yer sibs to love.” Romeo sneered at Elias. “An’ you–” he started to turn to Anna-Marie but got no further.
His eyes were huge as he touched under his nose where Anna-Marie had hit him and he stared at the blood on his finger tips.
“You hit me.” He whispered as if amazed that she would have done any such thing. “I’m gonna tell my ma.”
“Then you’ll be the tattler.” Anna-Marie did her best to match Romeo’s sneer, even though it sort of made her feel slimy on the inside. “Just go put a cold wet rag on it and you’ll be fine.”
He ran back in the house and Anna-Marie turned to see if Elias was alright. He’d run to the end of the house already, head and shoulders slumped.
“I’m sorry, Elias.” Anna-Marie said.
“I have to go.” Elias told her trudging away toward his house. Anna-Marie kicked herself and headed toward her house, this whole thing had gone bad.
She’d confessed her crimes to her father upon getting home. About dragging Elias to the Roses–about talking with Romeo–even about punching him in the nose. Papa had told her that her heart had been in the right place, but that she really needed to learn that not all problems could be solved with a Sminese burn or a punch in the nose and had forgiven her, just this once, for trying to solve it that way.
“You can’t fault her heart.” Papa had told her mama when her mama got home after work.
But then things went from bad to worse, because they hadn’t hardly gotten finished with supper when the Butchers knocked on the door asking if Anna-Marie knew where Elias was. And she betted she did. But the question was–was she right?