A rooster crow was heard, but it the sun hadn’t risen yet.
Chaaya began waking up her large family. She arrived to Florence’s turn.
The young girl resisted at first. After insisting a bit, she rose from her bed. Her dark brown hair were a mess and her eyelids opened very little.
She tried to talk for the first time of the day but only managed a rusty greeting, prompting the older sister to giggle.
Florence slowly changed clothes. Her duties started very early and she had to clean around the family farm buildings and feed the animals. It wasn’t much, but it was her respective job.
She left the dormitory and arrived outside. The sky was still dark, but light blue could be seen in the horizon. The sun was coming. She couldn’t help but yawn. She took her arms high in the air and stretched before going on her way.
Florence wanted to get her tasks over with to play with the other kids and maybe visit other families of the village. However, she would probably say that she wanted to make everything was going well before others began their day if anybody asked her.
She took a bucket. It already smelled gross. Climbing in the first horse’s pen she surveyed around. Both with her nose and eyes. Unsightly brown objets were present and smelled just as bad as they looked.
There we go. She took the poop in the bucket and placed the bucket out of the pen. The little farmer was climbing the gate when her exposed lower back booped by the horse’s snoot.
-"Ah!" She said in surprise at the snoot touching her.
The child couldn’t resist. As she reached the top of the gate, she reached out a hand and caressed the stallion’s mane. He seemed to enjoy it as he stood there looking at her.
-"Did I wake you up?" Florence asked.
The eyes of the horses closed for a bit.
-"So you’re sleepy too? Yeah. I don’t really want to get up early. You know you’d be a lot better if you could take care of your own poo, instead of having me do it!"
The horse sat down and did nothing else. His head lowered down.
-"You are so spoiled. What are we going to do with you?" said the child as she imitated her own mother.
Florence dropped to the other side of the gate. One horse was done, all of the others to go. She sighed.
She loved horses a lot. They seemed so gigantic to the child. It was difficult not getting distracted. She did take some time to get their mane in check.
One horse didn’t react to her. She tried to touch it and it worked. Its nose was running.
-"What does it mean again? Are sick mister? Your nose was running yesterday. I hope you didn’t catch anything bad."
The horse made horse noises. The farmer interpreted it as a nod.
Her run ended, she had one big bucket of equine droppings. They were still hot and so smelly it gave her a headache. She emptied them near the bonfire.
Other villagers where going around working. On every occasion that presented, Florence exchanged pleasantries with them. A few guards were making their rounds. They started a bit after the regular villagers. She began making her way across a bridge over a river.
-"Finally. Someone went and did it." Said a gentle, low voice.
Florence turned to see Russel, the village swordsman, sitting on the edge of the bridge and looking at her. He was blond, with a darker mustache. Pale blue eyes made him stand out in crowds. He was in his early thirties, but still one of the best guards under Daj.
-"Was it that important?" Asked the youngster, surprised by his interjection. He mostly kept to himself, but he was friendler than most guards, the worker found.
-"People hated it. It was humiliating to see everyone from out of town come in and leave remembering only the smell. I’m surprised you did it. Look at your hands, they are so filthy now."
He gestured at her hands. They took the color of what they have been exposed to. Their smell wasn’t too bad, however.
-"I didn’t know. I don’t want horsies have to sleep in crap. I saw they gathered and realized I should do it next morning."
-"Sounds like someone slept on the job. We shouldn’t let such things to little girls. It wasn’t part of your tasks so you should have told me someone slacked off. They dumped their work on you."
-"I don’t mind doing it. I get to be with horses before they are sent off to help in the field. Its the only time I can see them all. I’m kinda worried because Tato’s nose is running again. I guess I’ll mention it to the others."
-"You’re such a good girl Flo. Don’t let anyone push you around, okay?"
-"But I want them to. I want to show people what I can do. Are you taking my defense because i’m a child and i’m small?"
-"Of course not! It’s because I see someone doing things they don’t want to do. Tell me, what do you want to do? Be honest with me."
-"I want to give help for the hard work. The problem isn’t the smell or that I do what others don’t want to do. I think they give me easy things because they think I can’t handle more complicated things."
-"Are you sure you can handle the tougher work on the farm? Some things can be heavy or sharp. You could get hurt."
-"I know that! It’s just, I feel like i’m useless and I always do very small things. Like feeding animals and cleaning. I see people work all day, but when I’m done, It’s always, "thank you florence. You can go play with other kids Florence!" You know?"
The older man chuckled and had an idea.
-"What? I thought you loved playing with other children! You should have told us you wanted to work hard on the farm instead!"
-"What?! No! No! That’s not what I meant! I love playing knights and adventures with the other children! It’s just, other kids have all these big qresponsabilities and they look so important! I want to be important to other people too! That’s all!"
The guard laughed and Florence realized he was teasing her.
-"Ah? Oh you-! Take that!"
Florence reach in the bucket and threw a bit of the content at the guard. His armor was too heavy for him to dodge so he drew his sword and with the broad side of the blade smacked the poop away. It landed in the waters below a moment later with a bloop.
-"Young girls shouldn’t be throwing around horse manure. It’s unladylike and a waste of a good fertilizer."
-"That’s what you get for teasing me!I didn’t expect you to block that. It’s so cool."
-"It’s what practice does. No one start off good. It will take a long time for you to be able to do what your older sibling do. It takes effort, but it also takes time. For exemple, you became very good at picking up droppings."
-"Why are you telling me that? You’re not making me feel better at all mister! No one wants to be good only at picking up poop!"
-"I supposed you’re right. I’ll put in a word for you later."
-"Really? You will?"
-"Calm down. Don’t throw poop at other people and be diligent. I really have to get back to my run. Later!"
Russel gave a headpat to Florence before resuming his round. Her attention briefly shifted to what was on his belt. A scabbard and a sword. She thought about how she could get one, one day. It was difficult to get one, they were expensive and had to be sharpened often. Plus, you had to be an adventurer, a guard or a knight to have one. The child had tried to become each of the three at least twice. She probably forgot other tries.
Her hand instinctively shot out towards the sword, but she was well out of reach. The distance between the handle and her hand only increased as Russel walked away. Her head dropped and she looked downward to the floor of the bridge.
She was too young for each of the three positions. She couldn’t even apply or be examined for the position. It wasn’t because she was poor or she lacked the time. It was because she was much too young. She was 6 years below the minimum age.
She didn’t really know how long "6 years" was, but it was taking way too long for her liking. Everyone was so much taller than her. They kept talking about all kinds of very complex things. Florence couldn’t make heads or tails of it. So much was escaping her, she felt.
With a heavy heart, she grabbed the handle of the bucket and continued on her way. The hatch was reached. The little one took a big inspiration before opening the hatch. Quickly, she took her bucket and emptied it inside. The hatch was closed and after leaving, the air was fresh again.
Her feet slid along the edge of the riverbank, losing altitude. They hit the floor and took her to pristine water.
The brown hands were submerged and rubbed around. Water in the immediate viscinity became colored. The skin of her palms revealed to the world once more.
-"Don’t move so suddenly. You’re scaring the fish." A fisherman hushed.
-"Sorry, sir. Did you catch anything?"
-"I just started. Now quiet down."
Actually, looking at the limpid water. It made her want to take a dip, but that would piss off the fishermen. Maybe later downstream, she thought.
She began cleaning the pen of other animals and fed them. Florence almost forgot to check if each animal was eating well. At some points, she had to wrestle a few with some big appetite to leave some for the smaller ones.
She dropped down, tired. A lot was left still. Her stomach made noises now, so she went to eat.
She took some honey and bread, plus a bit of cheese.
As Florence was eating, Chaaya came along and sat very close to her little sister. The senior gave a knowing smirk, holding her chin with a hand, the elbow on the table. Florence tried to ignore it at first but it became difficult. She knew her older sister was trying to get her to ask a question by being too obvious. It was working, the little one became not irritated or disturbed, but curious about the reason Chaaya had.
-"What happened?" She asked.
-"I got some news about our older brother, Alaric."
Alaric was the oldest child of the family. He preceded every other member except the parents and eventually became a secondary father figure for all. He eventually was chosen to became a shepherd and left things to chaaya during his absence. It’s been a month and a half since he left with a large herd of sheep. His departure had been hard on Florence. He told bedtime stories and always helped her when she had a problem. He may have been the most important people in her life. The parents had a ton of responsabilities and were rarely near the village. Mostly they were planning things for later, like the next cycle of crops. Trying to look for a new horse or a helping hand for the farm. Making an effective scarecrow to scare away birds. Looking for materials to do some renovations for a building. Meeting important people. They were there everyday but always busy.
Florence’s face beamed.
-"Big brother Alaric? He’s coming back? No way! When is he arriving?"
Chaaya chuckled at her enthusiasm but placed a finger on her lips.
-"Shh. Word on the streets, he’ll be there in a few hours. We don’t want his arrival to distract everyone. However, I did want to tell you specifically because I know how much you miss him. Just do your thing. Don’t let others wait for him to arrive."
-"Is he going to have those fluffy things with him?"
Chaaya made a gentle smile. It was good to see her sibling in such a good mood. She was all excited now.
-"Of course he will. Maybe you’ll get to play with them a bit if your good."
-"Okay. I’ll finish early then!"
-"That’s a good girl."
The two left the table. Florence quickly went around weeding out the land were crops were grown. There was many of them and it took a long time. Hopefully they wouldn’t regrow. She was about done with her tasks now.
She thought about one of the open areas near the village. Sand had been placed to stop things from growing. Travelers settled there temporarily and so did merchants. It was always fun to talk a bit with strangers even if they wanted your money.
It was always fun to see what was proposed. It was difficult to keep it off her mind because when merchants closed off shops to leave, it was too late to buy. They were on a schedule and couldn’t be convinced to wait longer. Many opportunities could be missed. The village was on the smaller side, so they didn’t give much time. Some simply announced themselves to see if anyone was interested and began leaving if no one stopped them with money.
Actually, she didn’t have money, but some accepted trade.
She decided to slip by, she passed a playground for kids. It embarassed Florence to see that some of her friends were taller than her, yet too young to work in the fields or the barn.
-"I’m gonna go see if there’s anyone at the crossroads, you wanna come?"
Ali, a boy a bit older than Florence considered and the children followed his lead. He was taller, had a straw hat and overalls. He often had a straw of something between his teeth. It kept him busy. Florence knew he did it to look cool and emulate some of the adults.
-"Certainly would, Flo! Got a bit on my plate right now."
-"Ali, you are playing around. It’s no good to lie."
-"But I AM busy. You see, we’ve got a pest problem. This morning, when we entered our barn, some vermin went into hiding. If anyone is slaking off, it’s our pets! I was just thinkin’ is all."
-"Don’t you have poison?"
-"We do, but what if random animals try to eat it? We still don’t know how many there are and if we are the only one who noticed it. The entire village could be infested. If it’s only one building, we might have to set it on fire. That would solve the problem."
Florence suddenly felt some pressure. The importance of matters Ali were thinking about were actually quite severe. Much more than her own problems. If they were carrying diseases, then no one would be safe from it. It would spread easily.
-"I have inspected my family’s stable thoroughly earlier this morning. They don’t seem to have made any nest there. I can’t say if they have been there lately, however."
-"Have you really looked everywhere? This is serious business you know."
Florence frowned. She felt hurt by his questioning. Was he doubting her abilities or just her word? Ali never felt threatening or superior to her in experience because of their small difference in age, a year and a half to be exact.
-"Wha-? You think I haven’t? You think I’m doing my work halfway or something?"
-"Well, not halfway. You didn’t know about the issue before I told you. So maybe it could have splipped by you while you were thinking about something else. It’s not like you were looking for rodents in that building."
Florence froze. Her senior farmer’s suspicion wasn’t off the mark. She wouldn’t have missed a rat in front of her, but the buggers weren’t always in plain sight were they? Insisting didn’t seem wise now.
-"Er, well. I didn’t know, but I still haven’t seen or heard anything suspicious despite spending time with every horse."
There. That was a great compromise. She had only inspected the horse’s living space. Yet, she did check the building. All the poop she picked up definitely fell from a horse. They didn’t seem to have been disturbed by anything. While horses weren’t good hunters, they were still very sensitive to things out of the ordinary.
-"Alright. That’s always comforting. Dad went to talk with mayor Bon. Maybe they’ll come up with something. You know what, I need something to take my mind of things. Worrying won’t do any good. Let’s go."
The children arrived to the crossroad. It wasn’t far from the village. Immediately, something felt... different. Usually, people announced their wares with a lot of enthusiasm. It was missing.
Children weren’t bothered by it. Everything always varied. Sometimes something was going on and merchants were in large groups. It also happened that merchants who had sold what they had or bought what they wanted simply turned back.
They started snooping around. Talking to merchants. One apparently sold insects. The insects were disgusting but the man talked about them with such conviction that the children couldn’t help but listen to him.
He was going around his stall, his arms flapping around. Telling them of this butterfly that travels continent yearly and the long adventures they completed to flee the cold.
The children also saw an old woman that hailed from a different country. She was wearing colourful clothing. The crystal ball on a post must have meant she was a fortune-teller. Who told people’s future. A few were being told their fortune. For some reason, it seemed that everyone she touched had this incredible destiny waiting for them. Riches, fame, glory, true love, exploits, marrying a prince.
The children decided to give it a go. It was fine, until it was Florence’s turn. She froze completely and emotions disappeared from her face.
-"You will stay in this nearby village, working the animals and the ground until the day you die."
Honestly, Florence had no issues with it, but seeing everyone’s destiny before her being packed with importance. It felt... unfair.
-"But who am I going to marry? Who am I going to meet? I’m not ever going to leave?"
-"No one! Fellow villagers! Nope!"
-"W-what? That’s ridiculous! I have my entire life ahead of me! I can become important too!"
The old lady who had begun leaving, once again froze.
-"Don’t. Just don’t. Please."
-"Because you’ll be happy here, isn’t that enough?"
-"Hey, will I be tall one day?"
The fortune-teller laughed.
-"The nerve of this woman!"
To get her mind of things, the children visited another shop. This one had an helmet.
There were various wooden mannequins of various size around. However, they had nothing on them. Those affiliated with the store were in the back.
-"What’s wrong? Why aren’t there any armor on display?" Asked Florence.
One of them turned to her and said.
-"Because we don’t want to put any on display. Now bug off!"
-"What? But we want to see what you have! It’s always so cool seeing armor!"
-"Shut up you brat. Can’t you see the adults are talking about important things here? You’re bothering us!"
-"Why are you even here then? Shouldn’t you hit the road?"
Another man, this one seemingly of a high status decided to answer.
-"Why would merchants ever want to wander alone on the long roads? Don’t you think that’s asking to get stolen from?"
-"What? You are gonna be stolen? By who?"
-"Well, bandits of course! Who else?"
-"Is this why, you’re not showing merchandise? I really want to look."
-"Look. A lot of people are getting robbed. I’m not gonna show what we’re peddling to some snotty toddler because because she wants to look at pretty things. Alright? There’s probably thieves around, looking at the stock, picking targets. If we show anything, we’re gonna get killed."
It took a moment for Florence to understand what was said to her. It sounded real scary. She looked at around, taking a look at people around her that was completely changed. What did a bandit look like? What did a thief look like? Suddenly, she realized there was danger. What if one followed her home?
She instantly realized it was stupid. What would she even have to steal? However, he was right. There were guards posted here and there, but once the merchant got back on the road anything could happen.
She walked back home. Her shoulder slumped down. Where was Alaric gonna come from? When was he going to come?
Time passed. Eventually, a yellow mass appeared in the plain. It was coming. From afar, she saw her father, henry, leave a building a building. It was confirmed. Alaric was home. The child began tearing up.
Florence began running towards him. The wind blew in her dark hair. The silhouette of her older sibling became more and more detailed. Sounds of sheeps were now audible, many baahs could be heard. Sheeps were a little afraid and walked away. It cleared the way for the one who didn’t back away.
The two collided in a hug. Alaric lifted her up in the air and spun gently. Both seizing up each other and enjoying the present. Alaric saw the dirty hands and nails of her sister but didn’t care. He wouldn’t have expected otherwise. She could hear her surroundings of sheep. It brought back
-"It’s been so long! A lot happened since the last time you were here!"
-"I bet it has. It’s so great to be back home. I missed you."
-"I missed you too, big bro."
Alaric placed her little sister on the ground.
-"What? No, I haven’t!"
-"You definitely did quite a bit. You’re taller than the last time I was here."
-"Really? By how much?"
The shepherd indicated an amount with his index and thumb.
-"How’s things on the farmland? You helping people out more?"
-"About that... I didn’t really progress much since the last time you came. I do water crops a bit... from time to time and do work out on the field by weeding it out. Other than that..."
-"Yeah. You should try to talk to mom or dad about it."
-"Hey. It’s hard to find how to do it alright? They’re busy and are so stubborn!"
-"Come on, Florence. After a week, okay. It’s been months though. You had the time. I’m happy to have returned now to not let that continue."
-"Yeahh. Sorry. By the way, dad’s-"
-"Here." Said a lower voice behind the dirty one, she turned around.
-"What’s up, pops?" Said the shephard.
He was looking at his son in disapproval.
-"Alaric, what happened?"
-"What do you mean, by what happened?"
-"Don’t play dumb."
-"Go play with the sheeps Flo, we’ll meet later."
Florence wanted to protest but the tone in the elder brother stopped her. It shook a bit. It was the first time she had heard such a thing. Something was wrong.
She started running, still confused about what was unfolding. After a moment, she eventually tripped on a sheep that baah’d a bit louder. She looked back, from where she was, but couldn’t see because of the sheeps. She was hidden and the fluffy creatures were eating the greens.
Should she get up or hide? She decided to crawl between two sheep munching away at the grass.
-"THERE’S LESS OF THEM ALARIC! WHERE DID THEY GO?"
-"Dad, calm down. Alright? They must have been lost on the way. They can’t be far."
-"They were bought by lord Daj, Alaric! They belong to him and you lost them! He’s gonna send people to count them and the difference is going to be on us!"
-"The count was good not long ago. I came here early so he isn’t going to send them soon. We still got time!"
-"I hope you can find them and make the count right. He’s gonna be suspicious of us if some are missing by then."
Florence crawled away. She used a few sheep wandering off to hide. Once behind a building she sprinted to the stable. She unlocked the gate of a mighty stallion and climbed up the gate of the barn to reach the saddle. She hit him with her legs and he took off.
-"What are you doing!?" Asked Chaaya
-"Sheeps were lost! I’m gonna go find them! I’ll be back."
Florence looked back when she didn’t get an answer. Her older sister was already far away.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. She looked tiny compared to the stallion. She could only hold onto the saddle for dear life as the stallion galloped on the road Alaric took.
Thankfully, it wasn’t really difficult to see where Alaric had gone. The large herd of sheep made everything obvious. The plants were flattened out and many little footprints could be seen.
It didn’t seem that any sheep had been left behind. Florence tried to make the horse galop out of the road.
-"Sheep?" She cried out, "If you can hear me, just baah loudly!"
Nothing happened. She began to walk around the paths. Looking around, she didn’t see a fluffy ball prancing around on 4 leg despite the open field and having few trees blocking the view. She asked a few people walking the path.
She arrived to other villages and asked them about a sheep. They said they saw a herd, but no sheep alone.
Florence went around until the stallion was tired. He sat down on the road. The tiny rider tried to have him go but he didn’t care.
Realization happened when she tried to get off him. Could she get back on? She cursed her height and her age along with it. She decided to place it next to a tree and get off it.
The sun had already set and the moon was up. Cicadas could be heard everywhere. The girl felt a pang of hunger. For this excursion dinners had been missed. The child guessed they were probably worried, but would forgive her when she came back with the missing animals. It was late now, at least past her bedtime.
Florence felt tired. Her body felt heavy now. Normally, she’d be in bed, sleeping but she wasn’t.
A bit off thrill went through her. She was putting herself out there and trying to accomplish things. It meant doing things differently. There was something that felt good about being on you’re own and not having to worry about rules.
Her eyes closed on her own.
She opened them vividly and looked around. The child realized had just napped. The horse was still there. It was time to go.
An idea bloomed in her head. Going of the path, she went up a tall hill. With both the height of the horse, the height of the hill and the moonlight, maybe she could see one of the missing sheep.
She stood there for a while, simply looking around. Nothing even remotely looked like an animal despite the large areas she saw before her.
The farmer decided to head home, maybe Alaric had more luck. The fast stallion made quick work of the distance.
She saw a yellow light before reaching her village. It came from a lantern. The one holding it noticed her.
-"Florence, you are in a lot of trouble now. It’s best you come with me. People are looking for you."
-"Well, no, guards as well. You can’t just take off with a horse without having permission from the lord of the manor. Your family is rather upset. I have tried to comfort them, but I could only done so much."
Florence gave the horse back to Russel and arrived at the village. Many people were outside. Her entire family was there. Her father Evan, started talking.
-"Florence! How could you leave with our horse? What were you thinking? Don’t you understand how dangerous the roads are?!"
-"I wanted to look for the missing sheeps! I didn’t mean anything bad!"
-"Look around you! You really think that what you’ve done helped, you stupid girl?"
Florence looked around again. Many guards were there. They didn’t look happy. Chaaya had a red face indicating she’d been crying. Evan seemed furious at her. The emotions carried over to Florence.
-"I’m sorry. I was just trying to help. I didn’t know that- I’m so sorry."
-"Sorry doesn’t cut it! The guards have accused us of stealing and leaving."
Lords in this country were always very serious about what they were owed and Florence learned this very young. They took more than half from everyone working under them and were very sensitive about people hiding their earnings away. That was one of the main reason people weren’t allowed to leave. Guards would come inspect and take half of the goods produced. If anything was hidden away, the family would be punished. Florence looked to Chaaya. She was the only one who saw her leaving. She knows her younger sister hadn’t done anything wrong, but they were blood related. Family members were known to lie to protect each other so her words held little value.
Alaric stood between Evan and Florence.
-"She only did it for us, dad. If I had told her from the beginning that bandits attacked me, then none of this would have happened. I- This is all my fault. I didn’t want her to know I’ve been attacked."
Chaaya stepped in as well.
-"I could have stop my little sister, but I didn’t do it. I was surprised and wanted to see Florence on a horse."
Florence now had streams of tears coming down her face. Her nose was running. Her older siblings were protecting her again. She tried to help, but only caused more trouble for them, yet again. She felt to her knees and stopped her fall to the floor with her arms. Drops stained the grounds as she sobbed loudly.
This wasn’t fair! How could she have known?!
The captain of the guards walked up to Evan.
-"This is a very bad day for you isn’t it? Part of the herd is lost and your daughter runs off with a horse you were asked to take care of. Your repeated mistakes appear suspicious to me. Luckily, I’ve been informed that Russel met with Florence and confiscated the horse himself. This last incident has a good ending. Your transgressions can’t be overlooked. You will be in touch with the lord soon."
The face of the father drained of colors. He swallowed.
-"Very well. Good night captain."
The captain scoffed.
-"Good night. Citizen."
Slowly everyone began leaving. Villagers went back to their home. Guards went back on patrol.
Eventually, only Florence, Alaric and Chaaya remained.
-"I’m sorry." Repeated Florence, still on her knees arms keeping her from falling to the floor.
Alaric tried to steady his voice before talking.
-"Don’t be. Bandits are behind this."
So many questions were popping in Florence’s head.
-"This isn’t fair! You were attacked! Why didn’t you tell me?"
-"I didn’t want you to be scared. If you knew, you would never let me leave the village again. I have to take responsability for what happened. Sometimes, the world isn’t fair Florence."
Chaaya lifted Florence to her feet.
-"You are the last person I want to see cry." She stated.
Florence hugged her older sister. Alaric joined in.
-"Let’s take what remains of the night to rest. There’s a lot of problems waiting for us." He offered.
His sister obeyed without saying anything.
On her bed, Florence stared at the roof. Tears weren’t stopping. She had outdone herself today.