Muscles tensed as before the blow came, a whimper letting out before contact was ever made. Constance Michel cringed, biting her lower lip as the smack was heard.
“What do you say, Hroar?” the wrinkled mouth of Grelod the Kind sneered. The small boy swallowed a sob, his face red from effort.
“I love you, Grelod.” He whimpered as a other smack landed.
“I love you, Grelod!”
“Thank you for your kindness!”
“Better. Now go get your blanket and finish washing the lavatory buckets.”
“Surely that isn’t necessary?” Constance spoke up. She visibly cringed when the elderly Nord woman whirled to face her.
“What was that, girl?”
“I mean, you don’t have to-” Constance’s gut dropped as Grelod grabbed her wrist, yanking her hard enough to make her shoulder pop. The old woman’s grip was like steel, and Constance already knew she would have another bruise tomorrow, one to match both of Samuel’s. Grelod’s face was hard and cold.
“Go ahead. Finish your sentence.” Pain shot through Constance’s wrist and into her fingers. Grelod was digging her nails into the soft underside of Constance’s wrist. The younger woman clenched her teeth, a tactic she had developed over the past few years.
“I just meant that you don’t have to punish him! If you would let me-”
The pain receded in her wrist, still throbbing a little as Grelod let go. The Nord gave her a withering look.
“See to it, then. And I don’t want to hear any whining!” she turned around, muttering about how silly the boy’s name was. Constance waited until she was around the corner before dropping to her knees in front of Hroar and gently inspecting his face.
“Are you alright?” she asked in a hushed voice. The young boy rubbed his cheek, eyes stuck on the floor. He nodded. Constance sighed.
“Chin up, alright? She’s very old. She’ll have to go sometime.” she smiled weakly at him. “I’ll get you a scrub brush. I won’t let you sleep in filthy sheets tonight.”
Grelod dumped the contents of the lavatory bucket on Constance’s bed that evening.
* * * * * * * * *
A chill woke Constance up a few weeks later. She blinked in the darkness, squinting until her eyes adjusted. She slid out from between the thin blanket and moldy hay mattress and softly crept to check on the children. Seeing that they slept soundly, she shivered, the fire gone out from their room. She rekindled it, slowly adding larger sticks until she could add a log. When she left the room, she noticed the door to Grelod’s room was ajar. She reached out to close it, knowing Grelod would be furious if she knew Constance had “wasted” logs by warming the children at night. That was when she saw the figure looming over Grelod.
A hand was over her mouth before she could utter another word. The man had her pinned against the wall, out of view of the children if one of them woke. Grelod’s door was slowly swinging open the old hinges creaking as it reached as far as it could swing. The fire danced across his face, his eyes obscured by his low hood. His mouth curled in a smirk, his free hand holding a finger to his lips.
Constance breathed hard through her nose, her heart pounding in her head. It was all she could hear until he let go. He let her go, taking in her wild, panicked expression. He stepped back and disappeared into a dark room. She never heard a door open or close.
She gulped and gathered her wits, feeling weak with panic as she stumbled into Grelod’s room, reaching out to shake the woman awake.
“Grelod!” she recoiled when her hand touched the wet furs. The dim firelight from the children’s room illuminated a black liquid on her hands. She let out a small sound and stumbled backwards, hitting the chair behind her. It rattled as it fell over, and Constance fell against the table, her mind struggling to process what happened. She barely noticed that she was on the ground, the plates and goblets clattering around her as the table tipped over. After a moment, she realized the children were in the doorway. When the buzzing in her head cleared, she finally closed her mouth. She then noticed the children were laughing.
“Grelod is dead!”
* * * * * * * *
Constance hated to say goodbye to the children, but she knew that they would have a much better home outside of the orphanage. Hroar had been lovingly adopted by a Dunmer couple, both of the women fussing over him, telling him how handsome he was. He blushed and asked quietly about possibly getting a dog. They were delighted.
Samuel clung to Constance, helping as often as he could. He did chores without being asked, and was the first to greet prospective parents. After a while, he took to calling Constance “Mama.” Constance never corrected him.
She heard Samuel greet someone while she was mending a shirt. Francois had gotten into a scuffle with Aventus, which resulted in a torn shirt. Two torn shirts, actually. The boys had hidden their hands behind their backs, no doubt remembering the shackles Grelod had used on them whenever she felt like it. Constance had thrown them out immediately.
“Mama?” Samuel’s voice caused her to look up.
“This man wants to adopt Runa.” Samuel jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the man behind him. He was an Imperial man, slight frame, with hair the color of decaying leaves. Before Constance could question why she would phrase it that way, Runa ran in with her bag.
“I’m ready to go!”
“Hold on, I need to ask him a few questions.” she looked up at the man again, locking onto his brown eyes. She couldn’t help but think how unremarkable he was.
“Where do you live?”
“Near Dawnstar. I’ve purchased a very large house.”
“And what is your occupation? How will you provide for Runa?”
“I own a very successful caravan business.”
“Oh, well, that’s wonderful.” She looked at his clothing. He had a rich, velvety cloth trimmed with gold. His shoes were expensive looking, and had made no sound when he approached.
“And you’re alright with this?” she asked Runa, who nodded emphatically.
“Oh yes!” she bounced a bit. Constance nodded.
“Well, alright then.”
Runa gave Constance a tight hug around her neck, the force causing Constance to lean back a bit. She smiled and hugged the girl back.
“Be good, and you can always come back if he doesn’t treat you well,” she murmured into the little girl’s ear. Runa made a face, but nodded anyways.
Constance watched them walk to the door, her heart aching a bit. The man allowed Runa to walk out of the building first. Before he closed the door, he turned to the young caretaker and smirked. Her heart clenched as he held a finger to his lips.
They were gone before she even got outside.