Title: "Sharpe's First Lady"
Rating: T, for some bad language and some violence
Characters: Richard Sharpe, Maggie Joyce, OC
Disclaimer: As far as I know, Richard Sharpe and Maggie Joyce are owned by their talented creator, Bernard Cornwell. I do not own them. The original character in this story is mine, but no copyright infringement is intended. I am not making any money off of this, so please do not sue.
Summary: Two lives are changed and become intertwined because of an incident one evening. Please read and review!
"Got you, you little bugger!" The hand of the tall, red-haired woman closed unyieldingly over the wrist of the small boy who had tried to snatch a piece of chicken pie away from a platter. At least, the customers of her combination gin shop/brothel/inn assumed it was chicken, and Maggie Joyce had never corrected this misapprehension.
"Let go! I'm not doing anything! Please, Miss!" The small boy in her grasp squirmed frantically, but Maggie yanked him forward, pulling him off balance, and applied a little extra pressure to his matchstick-thin wrist. The boy winced, but did not cry out, nor did he attempt to hit the woman holding him in order to break her grip.
"Not doing anything? You thieving little brat, how dare you steal from me!" Maggie raised the wooden spoon she held high. "I'll give you the beating of your life!"
She thought the child would begin to cry, or start biting and kicking—although if he did the latter, it would only earn him a more severe beating. He did not. Instead, he ceased struggling, and a look of such unflinching, hopeless resignation settled on his face, that Maggie could not bring herself to continue. She lowered the spoon and released him.
The boy immediately tried to dart away, but Maggie was quicker. She grabbed him by the collar of his threadbare shirt, yanked him over into a corner, and flung him down onto a short, three-legged stool. "What's your name?" she asked abruptly.
The boy eyed her warily, but seeing she was between him and the door, answered her question. "Dick Sharpe."
Maggie put her hands on her rounded hips. "Well, Dick, what are you doin' in my place? Other than helpin' yourself to what don't belong to you, of course."
The boy looked down. "I were hungry, Miss."
The red-haired proprietress snorted. "We're all hungry at one time or another, lad. If you're goin' to be a thief, you'll have to do better than that."
The youngster looked up with interest. "Could I do that, Miss? Be a thief?" He spoke eagerly, as if this were the highest position anyone might attain.
"Maybe," she answered shortly. She was thinking that even in this London slum, most children looked better cared-for than this one. He was not just thin. He looked as if he had been deliberately starved. She guessed him to be no more than nine years old at the most. His skin was stretched over the bones; his cheeks were concave, making his green eyes look enormous. His hair was uncombed and untrimmed, he needed a wash, and his dirty clothes were in rags. He was barefoot, but his feet were in better shape than his hands. The nails of the small hands were ragged, dried blood encrusted beneath. His fingertips were scabbed. Maggie could not recall seeing the hands of a child in such bad shape. "What's wrong with your hands?"
He looked down at them as if he had never seen them before. "My hands, Miss? They're always like that. Comes from picking oakum."
Maggie nodded. That explained a lot. "So, you've run away from the workhouse, then?"
"No, Miss. I were sold. Apprenticed like, to a chimney sweep." The child swallowed, visibly frightened at the memories. "Master Hocking sold me to him. I tried to do what he wanted, I really did, but it were so dark and so full of soot, I started coughing. Started coughing and couldn't stop. I couldn't breathe, Miss!" Remembering, the small boy was becoming increasingly agitated. "I tried to do what Master Hinckley, the sweep, told me, but I just couldn't! I can't go up that chimney!"
He was close to hyperventilating now. There was no possibility he was acting; the boy was in total recall, his eyes wide and glassy in remembered terror. Maggie quickly sat down next to him, put her arm around the thin shoulders and drew him to her bountiful breast. "Easy, Dick. It's all right now."
"No! He said, he said if I didn't do what I were told, he'd push me up the chimney, and then set a fire in the hearth—burn me alive! Said, what good is a 'prentice who won't sweep—"
Maggie was rocking him now, stroking his hair in a soothing rhythm. "Hush, love. No one is goin' to burn you, or hurt you in any way. Hush, now. You're safe. Just breathe."
The child did as he was told, gulping in great lungfuls of air. In spite of his youth and his tremendous upset, he did not cry. As Maggie held young Dick and rocked him, some of the rags fell away, and she saw that the small, too-thin body was covered with bruises, new ones atop old ones. She felt a sudden, hard anger against those who had beaten him.
The door opened and a man lurched inside. It was "Gentleman Ned," so called because he was an undertaker, and as such, never lacked for funds. None of his customers could afford to pay much, but as everyone in St. Giles Rookery became his customers sooner or later, he never lacked for coins in his pocket. Not that he was generous. It was rumored he would steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes. He also drank a lot, as did everyone in the Rookery, but perhaps because of the nature of his job, Gentleman Ned was half drunk most of the time. Tonight was no exception. He staggered up to the bar and slapped his hand down peremptorily. "Gin, Maggie!" he demanded. "And a whore."
She eyed him distrustfully. "You've already been drinkin' somewhere tonight, Ned. Let's see some flash."
Ned pulled a few shillings out of his pocket and made a show of depositing them on the bar. "There. Now bring me a bottle and a whore. Or a whore and a bottle. I'm not picky." He smirked.
Maggie gave Dick one final reassuring pat, then rose to fetch some gin. "I can let you have the bottle, some o' me finest, but you'll have to wait on the other," she told Ned. "All my girls are busy just now."
He leered at her. "I'll be havin' you, then."
"You don't have that much money," she said shortly. It was true. Gentleman Ned was a regular customer, but that did not mean Maggie liked him, and as the proprietress of this establishment, she was in a position to pick and choose. Gentleman Ned would have to be far richer and far more generous before he would get a tumble from her.
He stepped around the edge of the bar and grabbed her arm. "I'm not feeling patient tonight, Maggie."
"Leave off!" Maggie slapped his face. It was only when she saw the flare of real anger in his eyes that she realized she should have been far more forceful. He pulled his fist back, intending to punch her in the face—
"Leave her alone!" Young Dick Sharpe flew forward, all fists and feet, attacking Gentleman Ned. The child was skinny and less than half Ned's size, but such was the intensity of his attack, Ned let go of the red-haired woman and staggered backwards. Both adults were amazed, but Ned recovered quickly, punching the boy instead of the woman. Astonishingly, the child staggered back, but did not fall or even cry—he just launched himself at Ned once more, aiming for the man's groin, which Gentleman Ned avoided only by shifting at the last moment to let his thigh absorb the blow.
"You little bastard!" Ned backhanded Dick to the floor. Maggie heard a dreadful *thunk* as the boy hit his head, hard, on the wooden floor. By now, she was back behind the bar, and the fingers of her right hand were closing around the stout cudgel that she kept there. Her left hand scrabbled for the cleaver on the platter, the one that had been used to cut up the meat for the pie.
Dick did not move, not even when Ned snatched him up from the floor and flung the small, limp body face down over the back of a chair. Ned yanked down Dick's breeches, while fumbling with the buttons on his own. "Aim for me goolies, would you? I'll just bugger you, then! I don't normally fancy boys, but it's all the same in the dark." He laughed as if he had said something funny.
"Bugger this!" Maggie screamed, bringing the cleaver down full force on Ned's wrist as he reached out with his left hand to hold Dick steady. It sheared its way through flesh and grated on bone. Ned shrieked, blood spouting from his wrist. The cleaver was caught, so Maggie let it go, swinging the cudgel at Ned. He scrambled back, slipped on his own blood, and went down. Maggie slammed the cudgel full force into his groin, and his pain was so great that his shrieking was cut off in mid-breath.
"I'll bloody kill you!" Maggie screamed, coming at Ned like an Amazon, eyes full of rage, red hair streaming behind her as she struck him repeatedly with the cudgel. She did not stop until he ceased moving. She glared down at him, breathing hard.
Dick had come to, and he drew close to Ned, who was either unconscious or dead, then drew back and kicked Ned hard in the face. The undertaker did not stir. Dick glanced up at Maggie, grinning with satisfaction, his eyes alight. "Looks like he's dead, Miss."
"Looks like," she agreed. Taking deep breaths, she gazed down at the boy. There was blood on his face, streaming from his nose; his lip was split; he had what looked as if it was going to be an enormous black eye, and she had no doubt there was a great lump on his head from where it had struck the floor. But he looked happy, delightedly happy, his green eyes bright and color in his thin cheeks. She thought: The little bugger likes a good scrap. "See if he's got any money on him," she ordered the boy.
Together they stripped the undertaker of anything valuable. Then they dragged him outside, where Maggie found two boys older than Dick, and gave them sixpence each to weigh the body and then throw it in the river. She was not concerned about retaliation. Ned had no family, and he had never been one to make friends. As for watchmen, they never came into St. Giles Rookery.
Once back inside her shop, Maggie sat down with Dick at the bar, poured a tot of gin, and pushed it at him. "Drink this, my lad. You've earned it."
The little boy took it and swallowed it gratefully. Maggie stood up, collected some mostly clean cloths and a basin, filled the latter with water, and sat back down across from him once more.
Dick eyed the items she had collected. "What's that for, Miss?"
"I'm goin' to clean you up a bit. Hold still now." Dunking one of the cloths in the water, she began carefully to clean the cuts, and then wash his face. He went rigid at her touch, and she paused, concerned. "Am I hurting you, love?"
"No, Miss." But he stayed rigid, even though she resumed washing him with greater care.
When she finished a few minutes later and gave him a hug, the small, slight body was still stiff. Maggie held Dick close for a long moment before he relaxed, and it took an even longer moment before he very hesitantly returned her embrace. She understood then. That was how you got when your only experience of being touched consisted of people wanting to hurt you.
"How old are you, Dick?" she asked him suddenly.
She drew back from him, incredulous. He did not appear to be anywhere near that old. "Twelve!"
"I think so, Miss. I were three when I were brought to Master Hocking's foundling home, and they have it writ down there that I were born 26 June, 1777. At least, that's what Bunty told me. She's a girl at the home. She knows how to read."
Maggie poured herself a glass of gin and drank it before she spoke again. "Well, Dick, I believe I can find a use for you. Would you like to stay here with me?"
His face lit up again. "Yes, Miss!"
"We've just committed a murder together, my lad. I think you can call me Maggie," she told him dryly.
He grinned cheekily at her. "Right, Maggie. Now do I get something to eat?"
She laughed. He was an impudent little bugger, but she loved him for it. "Yes, Dick. You can share my dinner. It's better than that pie." Together, they rose from their seats, and she slipped an arm around the boy's thin shoulders. Young Dick Sharpe lifted his head and smiled up at her happily, as if he had been waiting all of his life to find a woman to love. Maggie was Sharpe's first lady.