Barefoot in the Dark – Prologue

Fandom: Rule of Rose

Summary: A child goes missing without explanation; Eleanor resolves to find her. Also available at ao3.

It was vicious cold outside on the balcony, but she didn’t mind so much. It was just as vicious cold on the inside where Diana and Meg skulked and slithered; where Miss Martha the cleaning witch scolded and complained; where Mr Hoffman petted and whispered and slipped into the dormitory to watch them undress, insisting that he was simply there to keep them on task.

Hurry up and take off your dress, there’s no time for dawdling. When was the last time you changed your underwear, you dirty little wretch? No mummy and daddy is ever going to want a child who can’t take care of themselves. Give them to me, I’ll take them to the filth room for you…

Where everyone stopped what they were doing to point at her, the new girl, and hiss and snipe to each other as they stared at her with open distrust. The new girl, as if though she’d done it on purpose.

Eleanor had been a resident of the Red Rose Orphanage for just two weeks, but already she was weary of it. She wanted desperately to go home, but of course, that was impossible. Mummy had made quite sure of that.


The thought of her mother brought with it a torrent of confused and tangled emotions – feelings she was in no way equipped to handle at her age. It created a tightness in her chest that shallowed her breathing and a terrible, traitorous heat erupted behind her eyes.

She busied herself at an old table, covered in gardening paraphernalia. She filled her hands with dirt and let it rain down through her fingers. She admired the crude lettering that had been scarred into the table by some deviant child with atrocious spelling. She arranged the rusted tools in the order she thought they should be used – the clawed thing first, which she imagined would help loosen up the stubborn earth, then the wee spade to dig the hole proper. She sorted through opened seed packets, most of them empty, and she stacked them on top of each other in alphabetical order, which was her preferred method of organization, and she didn’t think of her father, not even for a second.

Daddy, she knew, was no longer around to wipe away her tears, and so, it seemed only reasonable that there should be no more tears.

Especially not in this miserable place.

She turned away from the table, having run out of distractions, and peered over the edge of the balcony, down into the yard. They were fenced in like animals. Empty cages were stacked in a darkened corner. The grass was mostly dry and yellow. Long dead, then. Not like the lush emerald lawns she’d left behind. Enemy territory that her Mummy had forbade her to play on lest she get herself dirty.

Mummies and Daddies didn’t want dirty children; why, everybody knew that.

Closer to the front entrance, two slovenly boys – Nicholas and Xavier if she wasn’t mistaken – wielded wooden swords against each other, clumsily jousting. She noted that they’d also made some hapless effort to construct a third opponent out of broomsticks and a bucket, which as far as she could tell, was the closest they’d ever come to actually using those cleaning implements.

Boys, she thought. Was there anything on earth more sloppy and repulsive? She could hardly stand the sight of them.

Her attention shifted from the duel to the balcony floor, long obscured by crayons and chalk. Railroad tracks like endless centipedes, and crooked hopscotch squares. Ugly, doglike creatures with jaws agape, carefully rendered candy vomit suspended between rows of sharp teeth. Honestly, had any of these children had actual parents, or had they all been raised by wolves before coming here?

And just beyond the four-legged candy dispenser, a rickety, weather-worn chair, and it’s silent occupant waiting ever-so patiently for her to notice:

A cylindrical bird cage.

The sight of it made her forget, just for a second, her earlier pledge not to think about her father. As she found herself reaching for the hook affixed to the top, she was transported through time, back into her own house far away from here, back to her father’s lap where she had perched herself every evening after supper, the two of them enjoying the antics of her father’s pet bird Scarlet.

Ellie, my love, he’d say, rearranging her on his knees so that she was looking more at him than the bird, fluttering madly against the bars of her cage. Have I ever told you about Forever Land?

No, Papa, she’d lie, eager to hear the story again, as many times as he’d tell it. What is Forever Land?

Someday, but not today or any time soon, a bird – much like Scarlet, here – will come looking for you. The bird is from Forever Land, a wonderful place without sadness or pain. All you have to do, Ellie, is follow the bird. It will guide you to Forever Land, where I’ll be waiting for you. And then we’ll be together forever in Forever Land.

The cage was heavier than she’d anticipated. She winced as the cold metal bars thumped against her bare legs. Yet still she welcomed the weight of the cage; immediately it seemed to balance the scales. Where before one side had been weighted down with the twin burdens of sorrow and anger, now began to lift, outweighed by the still tender memories and fresh hope that the cage promised.

She would find the Bird of Happiness, and it would take her to Forever Land.

She would find everlasting true happiness.

Days went by without anybody fussing about her newest acquisition. Diana and Meg had eyed it with some interest, but had made no attempt to wrest it from her; the boys were wholly uninterested in anything having to do with her; Olivia and Susan didn’t dare test her, and Amanda… Amanda rarely ventured out of the sewing room, except at mealtimes and to pilfer snacks from the kitchen in between mealtimes.

Only the orphanage’s nursemaid Clara had asked her anything about it (“Do you like birds?”), but Eleanor didn’t mind Clara. She was four years older than Eleanor, but she was a small, fragile girl, and her frailty lent her a greater illusion of youth so that she seemed younger and more innocent than Diana, who was only two years older than Eleanor.

“Yes,” she’d replied, and then because Clara had smiled so gratefully at her, she’d told the older girl about Forever Land, and the Bird of Happiness.

“How wonderful,” Clara had sighed wistfully, staring at the empty cage dangling from Eleanor’s fist. She might have said more, but the speakers had crackled to life and Mr Hoffman’s voice had summoned her to his office. Clara had slunk away and Eleanor had wandered off herself, carefully skirting Thomas as he crawled on all-fours up and down the hallway, making quiet “choo-choo” noises as he gripped his toy train until his knuckles had turned grey-white, and the wheels scratched the wood floors.

Months went by, and Eleanor’s position as the much reviled “new girl” was usurped by a younger girl with a short, boyish haircut. Eleanor disliked her immensely.

“She was on the airship that crashed,” Clara informed her as she bandaged Eleanor’s bruised fingers. Diana had “accidentally” struck her with a hammer as they’d been building the box the Rose Princess had ordered. “Both of her parents died. She’s fortunate to have found her way here.”

Clara’s loyalty to the orphanage had annoyed Eleanor, and she hadn’t responded.

Rumors began to take hold in the orphanage, spreading through the dormitory like an especially contagious disease.

Stray Dog gives us sweets

Stray Dog kidnaps kids

Imps, they were all certain, would take them away if they failed to perform their chores.

It was unnerving.

Clara, who she had taken to eating meals with, had begun to skip breakfast, leaving Eleanor to sit by herself, or with Jennifer.

Eleanor didn’t ask Clara about her disappearances, as it wasn’t her place, but she did take it upon herself to search for Clara as soon as Martha released them from the cafeteria.

Infuriatingly, she discovered that Clara was spending time with Amanda in the sewing room.

Because speaking to Amanda repulsed her, she didn’t ask her about Clara, either.

It was very frustrating, indeed.

Holidays and birthdays in the orphanage were largely ignored. Without money to decorate or provide gifts, Hoffman and Martha carefully avoided any occasion that called for them, although they allowed the children to celebrate Halloween among themselves, with masks they’d make with crayons and paper bags.

As a result, several of the children could no longer pinpoint the exact date that they’d been dragged screaming into existence. Some of the younger children merely guessed at their own ages.

Eleanor could remember both her birth date and her age, but she didn’t bother to share this information with anyone. There was hardly any reason to, unless she wanted to give Diana a specific reason to torment her, as she surely would.

She spent the day scrubbing floors and helping Jennifer with the laundry. Laundry was an unpleasant task, but it afforded her some quiet time – Diana and Meg never set foot in the filth room (it was beneath them), and Jennifer, useless though she was, didn’t pester or harass her. It was a tolerable situation.

As evening fell upon the orphanage, the children gathered in the cafeteria for supper, then to the dormitory to prepare for bed.

Mr Hoffman crept in and gathered undergarments for washing.

The hour leading up to bedtime was always rowdy. Xavier and Nicholas dueled; the girls scribbled, crumpled papers, and scribbled some more; and Thomas crawled, train in hand, muttering “choo-choo” and making disapproving noises as slammed the train into walls and bed posts.

Eventually, Jennifer would retire to the filth room where she was quarantined due to lack of space in the dormitory. The others would, one-by-one, sprawl across their bunks, and the dorm would give way to stifling silence and stillness.

It was in this silence that Clara tip-toed across the room to Eleanor’s bed, where she set herself gingerly at Eleanor’s feet, a lidded box in her lap.

“I heard Mr. Hoffman mention your birthday once when you first came to live here,” she explained, staring at the box. “It’s not much, but I did the best I could…”

She thrust the box at Eleanor, still refusing to look at her. “I hope you like it.”

Inside of the box was a small, red blob.

“I got the fabric from an old coat I found in the attic.”

Eleanor lifted it out of the box, holding it pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Whatever the material was, it was quite soft and smooth. Two black buttons had been affixed to what she presumed to be the face. The beak was shiny and hard, although she couldn’t imagine where Clara had found it or what it had once belonged to.

“For your cage,” Clara said quietly.

Eleanor took the other wing with her free hand and held it up to get a better look at it. The black thread Clara had used to sew it together gave it a kind of pleasing contrast, even if it was unevenly spaced and inexpertly stitched. She remembered lamenting to Clara that there were no suitable toys in the entire building, but she had been complaining just to complain; she certainly hadn’t intended for Clara to rectify the situation. “Thank you.”

Clara had smiled down at her hands, muttered a shy “you’re welcome”, and scurried back to her own bed.

“It’s burning my eyes.”

“You’ll get used to it.”

Clara blinked and turned her head from left to right, wiping her eyes on her shoulders to the best of her ability. She was elbow deep in cold, dirty water, attempting to lighten the dirty patches on the knees of Thomas’s favorite pair of pants. “How awful,” she moaned, lifting the pants to examine them. They were filthy.

“It’s really not so bad,” insisted Jennifer, who was more than half-way done with her pile. Of  course, Jennifer was making only half the effort Clara was.

Eleanor had learned to pull her own clothes from the laundry collection to wash herself, unless she wanted to wear last week’s stains. She didn’t admonish Jennifer for her laziness, though; the other children would have done even less.

Mostly they did just enough to keep the cleaning imps at bay.

“It’s nice in here,” Clara said after a while. She hadn’t quite settled into a routine yet, but her pile was steadily diminishing. “It’s almost as if though we’re the only ones living here.”

“If only that were true,” said Jennifer. She grimaced as she lifted a grey, threadbare pair of Amanda’s undergarments from her pile. The flower pattern had all but faded down to nothing, and there were tiny holes between the legs.

Under other circumstances, they might have laughed, but their own garments weren’t fairing much better.

They finished the laundry in silence.

It was a frigid November morning when Eleanor awoke well before anyone else and discovered Clara’s bed empty.

It wasn’t entirely unusual; Mr Hoffman often needed Clara’s help at unusual hours.

She meant to lie awake until Clara returned, but as she laid there in bed, she grudgingly drifted back to sleep, awaking a second time to find that most of the other children were already dressed and heading downstairs for breakfast. Clara, she assumed, had already gone to the cafeteria.

She dressed quickly, grabbed the cage with the red bird carefully perched on the little swing, and left the dormitory, pushing irritably past Susan and Olivia, who seemed determined to shuffle down the hallway at a snail’s pace. Perhaps they were having a contest to determine who could be more infuriating. Mentally, Eleanor declared it a draw.

Clara was not in the cafeteria, and Jennifer, speaking through a mouthful of what was surely over-salted porridge, claimed to have no idea where she was.

Nor had any of the other children seen her since the night before, when she’d tucked herself into bed.

“Who cares?” Said Diana, deliberately voiding her spoon onto the tabletop. The porridge puddle widened as she added another spoonful.

“Certainly not us,” Meg simpered, trying not to put her arm in Diana’s mess.

“She’ll turn up,” Mr Hoffman had said. “Go finish your porridge before it gets cold.”

“She’s an adult,” snapped Miss Martha, slopping a dripping ladle of salty slime into Eleanor’s bowl. “She can do as she pleases, and never you mind.”

But Eleanor did mind, and when the daylight retreated upon the night’s return, and Clara still hadn’t been found, a queer kind of dread began to unfurl in the pit of her stomach.

“Maybe she got a new mummy and daddy?” Jennifer suggested hopefully, although her eyes were troubled.

“Don’t be daft,” Diana said, though no one had invited her to participate in the conversation. “Clara was way too old for a mummy and daddy. If anything, the cleaning imps finally came to collect her lazy bones to scatter them about the woods.”

“Or maybe Stray Dog got her,” Diana continued, ripping a hairbrush through her unwashed mane. “What difference does it make? I, for one, am just glad that I don’t have to look at her gloomy puss anymore.”

Nobody dared to challenge Diana, as it was well known she was as mean as a snake and just as easily provoked. So they all silently allowed Diana to make her hateful proclamations, with only Meg agreeing that Clara’s disappearance was a welcome turn of events.

But when the rest of the children had gone to bed for the evening, Eleanor slipped from the dormitory, across the hall and into the filth room.

Jennifer was still awake, as if though she’d been waiting for her.

Eleanor shut the door behind her and stood at the foot of Jennifer’s bed, nervously twirling the cage at her side, completely unaware that she was only wearing one sock. “We have to find her.”

“Yes,” said Jennifer, grimly. She’d grown fond of Clara, who had slowly assumed a sisterly role for the both of them. “But how? What can we do?”

For that, Eleanor had no answer.


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