Chapter 2: Not Everyone
"Haru, can you fetch another box from the cart? I'm running out of some stuff."
"Yeah, sure." A now eight-year-old Haru hurried to the cart, pausing only to give Taro a reassuring pat on the neck, before continuing onto the cart. She hauled the box nearest to her off the back of the cart and nested it expertly in her arms. Still young, the past three years had worn her down; the carefree look had gone and her eyes held more caution than any eight-year-old should respectively have. She still laughed, but it was becoming a rarity. She had never stayed in one place long enough to make a friend, and the truth of her mother's words three years ago were beginning to sink in. She saw the distaste the people passing in the streets gave her, and now she recognised the differences between "their world" and "her world".
She dumped the box full of stock behind the stall. "Is stuff selling well today then?"
"Reasonably," came her mother's response.
Haru gave her mother a questioning look.
"We'll be fine for food tonight," Naoko sighed, understanding the true reason for her daughter's question. "And probably for the next few days." She passed over a full box to her daughter. "We've also been given a few items of clothing to repair – do you think you could manage a couple?"
Haru smiled weakly and took the offered box. "Sure." Her mother also repaired clothes sometimes for a bit of spare money, but recently Haru had been learning and now she was able to retreat to the cart sometimes instead of standing by the stall and do a few of the pieces of clothing. At least she got peace and quiet there.
"Hi Taro again," sighed Haru as she passed by the elderly horse. She took her place in the back of the cart, resting underneath the canopy that protected the inside of the cart from possible rain. Not that it looked like it was going to rain today, but it also kept a little bit of warmth in and Haru knew just how cold the winters could get. She had long ago grown out of her old brown dress, but the dress she wore now wasn't very different to it anyway. And with winter fast approaching she usually kept her cloak close around her to save every last breath of warmth.
The needle and thread in her hands danced a merry dance across the skirt, soon bridging the gap so the tear was no longer visible. Only eight, she was by no means perfect, but it was another way of providing income, which meant providing food, so she had grabbed the opportunity at the first chance she got. Now her mother didn't have to worry to the same degree about her running off, they didn't go hungry quite as often as they used to.
There were still days when they didn't eat though.
A little numbed by the cold, Haru's fingers slipped and pricked themselves upon the needle. She quickly withdrew her hand before it could drop blood onto the skirt and applied pressure to the wound to staunch the bleeding.
"Silly needle," she muttered; waiting for the blood to stop. She examined her hand after half a minute; the pin-prick was one among many. One more didn't make much difference. However customers didn't like finding small drops of blood upon their clothes, so she had to be careful. The last time someone had returned to complain about it... She shivered and returned to her task. They had moved on very quickly from that town. Being homeless didn't make them particularly popular with the locals, especially if the locals happened to be high-ranking, so it didn't take much to turn people against them.
Haru had discovered that at a startlingly young age.
Time went by and the needle and thread began to fall into a pattern. Like some slender dancer, the needle dipped and rose through the material, slowly bringing the tear to a close. Haru couldn't stop the small prick of jealously inside her that hurt more than the needle-prick had ever done. It had only ever been a twist of fate that she had been born into the life she had, which meant she was always scrounging for her next meal, wearing clothes that never quite fitted, instead of living a life of comfort. She loved her mother dearly, but sometimes, she couldn't help wondering what her life would've been like if fate had led her to be born to a different family...
Her eyes trailed off from the skirt and instead focused on the town before her. If she cast her mind back, she could still remember the boy from three years ago, who was not that much older than her, but whose life was so very different from her own.
The day finally came to its end and as she helped her mother tidy up the stall and pack the unsold items into the cart, Naoko passed a small pouch over to her.
"There, go and get something to eat – it's been a long day."
"Will you be okay with the stall?"
Naoko laughed at the maternal note already present in her young daughter's voice. "I'm sure I can manage it. There's not much in that purse, but it's enough to get some bread and maybe some meat. Be sure to be careful though. Not everyone–"
"Is to be trusted," Haru finished. "Yes, I know."
The redhead smiled wanly. "Sometimes I feel you're growing up too fast."
Haru grinned and motioned to her dress which was a little too short in the leg. "I think my dress agrees with you there."
"When we get some spare money, a new dress will be the first thing on the agenda," her mother assured her.
"Really?" Haru squealed happily.
"Yes, really. Now go and get us some dinner before it gets too dark."
Still grinning, Haru ran off along the alleyway and around the corner to where she knew a baker's was.
"Why, look who we have here. If it isn't little Haru."
Haru laughed at the friendly voice and peered onto the counter; her mouth watering shamelessly at the wide assortment of pastries and pies and bread rolls. "Hello, Mr Cesari," she said finally; tearing her eyes away from the delicious selection before her and looking towards the baker she'd learnt to trust since first arriving in that town little over a week ago.
"What has your mother sent you to get, little one?"
She longingly returned her gaze to the enticing choice before her, but said, "Only some bread. Could I have a loaf?"
"We've just had one come out of the oven. Lettie – where is that loaf that's just come out?"
"Here." A pretty blonde woman looked over the counter. "Hello Haru. Has business been good today?"
"Not too bad. How much will that be?"
The baker laughed. "I think we can let you have that for a couple of copper coins. And, here, have a couple of these." He brought out two iced buns. "Consider them our treat to you and your mother."
Haru's eyes bugged. "Really?" She took offered buns as if an angel had just dropped out of the sky and delivered them to her. "You really mean it?"
Lettie laughed at the little brunette's incredulous stare. "Of course he does, silly, otherwise he wouldn't have said it. But go quickly, before he decides to take them back," she teased.
The young girl gripped the treats possessively, staring horrified at Cesari before hurriedly leaving. He chuckled. "You shouldn't pull her leg like that." He paused, then looked over at Lettie, adding good-humouredly, "You know, I think I forgot to ask for the money."
The young woman laughed back, but there was something sad in her features. If Haru had stayed long enough, she would've heard her sigh something that sounded like, "The poor little dear."
"Mummy, mummy, guess what Mr Cesari gave me!" Haru giggled as she ran back along the alley. "And he said I could have them for free! Mu–"
She ground to a halt.
The cart was in flames. All of her mother's work and stock ... burning. Everything they relied on to keep them afloat ... gone. The lead that had secured Taro to the cart had been burnt through; Taro had fled.
A shout broke her eyes away from the cart.
"I told you, that's all I own! I haven't got any money!"
"Mummy," Haru whispered. She stood transfixed as she saw the two men who were bearing down on her mother.
"You've been selling wares all day, darling, so don't try to sell us that," one of them slurred.
"We barely have enough to keep us fed; every penny goes towards food and more stock," cried back Naoko. "Everything I own is in the cart!"
Naoko's eyes flitted to her daughter, now seeing her there for the first time. "Oh God, no... Haru, sweetheart, run!"
The urge to follow her mother's cry battled against the fear of being alone. Haru just stood and continued to stare as one of the men turned towards her.
He turned back to Naoko, grinning. "I didn't know you had a kid."
"Don't you dare touch her!"
The man ignored Naoko's shout and walked over to Haru; she just stood transfixed by her fear. His breath smelt funny, like those who came out of the pubs. Her mother had just warned her that those people were "trouble". Haru had never questioned why.
Trying to put on a brave face, Haru pouted. "Only mummy calls me that," she told him stubbornly. Something told her showing her fear wouldn't do her any good.
The man laughed. But unlike Cesari and Lettie's laughs, this scared her. It didn't speak of good-willed humour. "Oh, would you listen to the little lady? Anyone would think she'd been raised proper-like." His eyes were caught by the small leather pouch Haru was carrying. "Would you like to hand that over?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "No,"
That laugh again. "I don't think you fully understood me." His tone dropped to a low growl. "Hand over the purse."
Haru glanced worriedly over to her mother for guidance. "Only if you let my mummy go."
"Of course we will..."
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"You can trust us."
Not everyone is to be trusted. That was what her mother always told her. And alarm bells in the back of her young mind were going crazy, telling her that these men were who her mother had been referring to.
"What did you say?"
Haru hugged the purse and basket with the loaves in closer to her chest. "I said no. We need that money for food."
The man snarled. "Right, plan one's failed. Plan two." His hand shot out to grab her wrist.
"You leave her along, you bastard!" screamed Naoko. "She's only eight, she's only a–"
A resounding slap stopped her short.
Haru stared from the man holding her mother back, to the one before her. Her mother looked so... so... helpless. So vulnerable.
And that terrified her.
And angered her. From the fear rose an anger she'd never felt so strongly; it filled her entire body. The hand being gripped by the stranger started to shake. "No," she whispered.
"No," she repeated. The word was scarily steady. "No. No, no, no, no, NO!" She screamed out the last word and now tears were rolling down her face with the force of the emotion inside her.
The man's hand started to smoke. And then it burst into flame. Wild, uncontrollable, the flames rippled up his body; devouring skin and attire alike. He released the small girl to attempt to put out the fire, but it only seemed to add to the fire's ferocity. It greedily licked up any exposed skin, burning deep.
Haru stepped back, her eyes glittering with a dangerous gold as she watched the man scream. He stumbled away, out of the alley and his companion stared terrified at the young child.
"Witch," he muttered, and then fled after the other man.
Naoko picked herself up, looking fearfully at her daughter. The golden shade had gone from the brunette's eyes, and it seemed what she had just done was dawning on her. "Haru..."
Haru stared up at her mother. The basket lay on its side beside her; the loaf and buns ruined by the dirt, the purse lying forgotten on the ground. The anger had gone; the fear remained. But it was a fear for what she had done this time.
Scared of what she might do next, Haru turned on her heels and ran.