The children lay quite still, not daring as much as to breathe, their ears aching with the effort of listening to silence. It was dark in the orphanage dorm, so dark that it made no difference if they closed their eyes or kept them open. So they lay blind and mute, all their senses dead except for hearing; they were half a dozen pairs of ears, curled up beneath grimy, torn blankets, probing the night stillness, sifting through it in search of any slightest hint of a noise, like a prospector sifts through river silt in search of gold. Finally, it came - the sound they had all been waiting for. The low, sob-like creak of the front door. They lifted themselves slowly on their elbows, each mentally pleading his or her heart to stop hammering so loudly against their ribs; they were now transformed into half a dozen pairs of eyes, peering into the black nothing ahead of them. For a while, it remained impenetrable, unyielding - and then, suddenly, it came alive, chased away by a tiny flicker of bluish light, which soon blossomed into a hovering orb the size of a fist, revealing a small figure, skinny, thin-necked and large-headed like the rest of the children, standing with its legs wide apart, a sizeable, bulging sack hoisted over its shoulder.
'Umtaz... Is that you?' one of the boys asked in a hoarse, faltering whisper, leaning forward eagerly.
The small apparition snorted, 'Of course it's me, Asbjorn!'
The children snickered into their bedclothes - the midnight visitor had pronounced the boy's name in a way that made it sound quite rude.
'And I got plenty o'yummy swag!' Umtaz went on, tiptoeing closer to the beds and flinging the sack down onto the only one that was empty. The orb of light had followed close behind, and its faint glow now made it apparent that Umtaz was a young Orcish girl, not more than ten years old, with two tiny fangs, just beginning to stick out from beneath her lower lip, large, almond-shaped blue eyes and all hair shaved off her head save for a dark fringe, combed carelessly behind her left ear. She plopped down beside her unloaded burden and grinned at the silently, apprehensively watching children, dangling her legs nonchalantly, 'Well? Are you gonna get down to unpacking or not? There's plenty for everyone - cheese, and sausages, and a honey jar...'
With small, piteous groans of longing, they stumbled out of their beds and gathered round Umtaz, hands outstretched, tugging at the string with which the sack was tied, groping for its contents with trembling fingers. Asbjorn, however, remained where he was, following Umtaz's every move with his intent, sullen gaze, his eyebrows knitted together in a suspicious frown. 'How did you get all these things?' he asked at length. 'You stole them, didn't you? Didn't you?'
Umtaz, who had been helping a smaller girl jerk out an almost impossibly enormous apple pie, looked up at him and shrugged her bony shoulders impatiently, 'Will you ever think of a different question? Like, what's my favourite colour, or have I ever kissed a boy? Come on, does it really matter that much to you? The important thing is, I keep all of us fed; right, gang?'
'Right!' everyone echoed in an enthusiastic chorus.
'Stop being a prig, Asbjorn! Just let it go!' someone added through a mouthful of white bread with raisins.
But the obstinate little Nord simply refused to 'let it go'.
'You are my friend, Umtaz,' he said, his voice quiet and earnest. 'And I'd hate to see you become like one of those big kids - Bryn, or Vex, or...'
'At least Bryn and Vex don't go hungry,' Umtaz objected sensibly. 'Now, how about you quit your whining and do something useful - I've got a chunk of raw beef here, and it ain't gonna cook itself!'
With a deep sigh of resignation, Asbjorn finally crawled from beneath his rag of a blanket, squatted down on the floor beside his bed and lifted the three loose floorboards that concealed the children's secret treasury - a small hollow space filled to the brim with all manner of things not allowed by Grelod, the orphanage's caregiver, including a doll with a missing arm and straw stuffing bursting out through the seams (the girls were forbidden to play with dolls because Grelod thought that caring for these make-believe children might stir within them the blasphemous thoughts of being adopted), a mouldy old spellbook that Umtaz had found in a trash heap and used to secretly practice casting orbs of light - and most importantly, a tiny piece of flint, which the children reverently called The Stone. This awe-inspiring mineral had been given to Asbjorn as a birthday present by Balimund, the local blacksmith, who would sometimes come by and try to coax Grelod into allowing him to adopt the boy, - and on many a night, it would chase away the bitter cold when Asbjorn used it to light a makeshift campfire right on the dorm floor, in the middle of a pile of pebbles, also kept in the treasury, which the children would use to prevent the fire from spreading.
'What are we gonna use for kindling?' Asbjorn whispered in a business-like manner, after taking the necessary materials out of the treasury.
Umtaz grinned at him and produced a stack of crumpled papers, which had been stuffed inside her only, but very spacious, pocket, 'Here. I grabbed these when I dropped by at the temple on my way back here'.
A serious-looking girl with neat pigtails bent down to examine the papers more closely - and gave a terrified gasp, 'The pamphlets on Mara?! How could you?!'
Umtaz rolled up her eyes in a deliberate display of contempt, 'Mara-Shmara! All these pamfels... pamlets... things are good for is starting a fire! I took a look at them - they are all about love, and 'sharing is caring', and comforting each other in the, uh, hours of need, and all that rot. Who are these priest people to tell us this stuff? What do they know? I bet they haven't never been hurt, or lonely, or miserable - bet they haven't never cried themselves to sleep!'
'Haven't ever,' the pigtailed girl corrected her sulkily. But Umtaz made no reply; she was too busy helping Asbjorn keep the fire strong enough to get the beef roasted and weak enough for Grelod not to wake up from the smell of smoke and burst in on them.