The worn wooden floorboards were nicked and scratched by time and the floods of children that had played and ran and tantrumed upon them. There were stains from spills and one corner that still showed signs of a fire that once threatened to engulf the orphanage. Like a minefield, the floor was laced with squeaky spots that would give a less-sneaky child away when they crept out of bed. But Keira was the sneakiest. Reaching out her tiny toe of her stocking clad foot, she hopped across the floor to hug the wall near the downstairs parlor. The flickering light from the fire shone warmly out the arched doorway and spilled across the front room. A shadow could give her away as well.
“After all these years, I’m not surprised.” Madam Valerie’s voice was soft and warm, just like the woman it belonged to. “I don’t think we are ever going to find out who her parents were. Good riddance. Can’t imagine the monsters that would leave a babe in the snow like that.”
There was a ragged sigh. Even from that intake of breath, Keira smiled knowing who it was. When she heard the door open and those big heavy footsteps, she had known that Legrion was back. “I suppose. I thought I had a lead on grandparents. I hoped if I could find her family, there might be someone to care for her. You do wonderful with her,” he rushed to add. “But I know that her sickness is a lot for you to take on, with all of the others that you have to look after.”
Keira felt her breath suck out of her chest. Hearing him say it like that, felt like it was her fault. Was she making it hard on Madam? Did the others go without because of her. Tears stung her dark eyes. This was a mistake. She had wanted to sneak down and surprise Legrion. Now she wished that she had slept through this visit.
Her eyes snapped open as she gasped and looked up. Legrion was standing over her, looming as tall as a giant compared to her tiny five year old self. His sandy hair was longer than the last time he had been through and his face was covered with dark blonde stubble. It made him look like more of a man. He was growing up. Soon he wouldn’t have anytime for the silly little girl he found in the snow anymore. As he moved, the firelight shone and glinted off of his chainmail armor. Keira took a defiant step backward.
“It’s not my fault!” Her tiny chin tipped up. “I don’t wanna be sick.”
Madam Valerie swept around behind Legrion, her face aghast. “Goodness child. Why are you awake at this hour?”
Keira stood her ground, her lower lip drawn up as her eyebrows knit. “Why are you trying to send me away? THIS is my family! You and Madam and Elena and Josia and…” she trailed off as her voice faltered. Her breath came in soft rasps and a ragged cough escaped her. There were tears in Madam’s eyes and even Legrion’s usually hard expression was unusually soft. He dropped to one knee in front of her, his shoulders still well over her head.
“We just want the best for you, little one.” Keira wanted to shout at him but she didn’t trust her voice. He continued filling in the space. “But you are right about one thing. This is your family. We love you. No matter where you go in the world, no matter where life takes you, you will always have us. Do you understand that?” Keira’s head shook stubbornly side-to-side. Legrion’s head tipped to the side to peer at her through the rough curtain of hair that fell in his face. “I have to leave now. There are bandits up the coast and I’ve been dispatched to deal with them. I won’t be here, in this house, but does that mean that you will stop caring about me?”
Keira mouth dropped open. She knew that as a member of the King’s Police, Legrion was regulary sent into scary situations, but hearing that he was on his way to fight bandits made her afraid for him. She shook her head emphatically, “Never!”
“And,” he continued with a smile, “have you stopped caring for Issa, even though she lives with a new family now?”
The thought of sweet little Issa brought more stinging tears to Keira’s eyes, but she shook her head.
Legrion nodded, “Someday you will go to a new place too. It will be exciting and you will have new adventures, but that does not mean that you will ever lose what you have here.” he reached out to touch the center of her chest, “Home.”
It felt that warmth spread out from her touch and she looked up into his deep blue eyes and felt it again. Home. Lunging forward, she wrapped her arms around his heavy neck and squeezed him tightly. With a chuckle he scooped her up as he stood and followed Madam Valerie upstairs to her room.
It wasn’t long after he tucked her in that she heard the front door open and close. Her heart banged an anthem in her chest. He had said that it was hard for Madam to care for her, with her regular bouts of sickness, along with all of the other children. Did they go without because of her? Would it be better if she left? After all, Legrion said that they would be in her heart no matter where she went. Which meant…
A glorious idea sprouted wings in her mind. Leaping from bed, she pulled on her boots that she wore for gardening, strapped her belt with the wooden sword Legrion had brought her to her waist and wrapped her woolen shawl around her shoulders as she dashed back out of her bedroom. None of the other girls so much as stirred. Where before, she was slow and careful picking her way around the noisy spots on the floor, this time she flew through them at speed. Artfully dodging each one with practiced ease and nary a squeak. Making her way out the front door and pushing it closed carefully, she could spot Legrion’s horse walking down the road as he sat astride fiddling with a piece of his armor.
Keira’s legs blurred as her chest ached, but she pushed on. Cutting through a neighbor’s yard, she ran for the road. “Legrion!”
Legrion was alert and spun around in an instant. His eyes strained in the dim and went wide as she closed the distance. “Keira? Good Gods girl, what are you doing?”
Keira struggled to suppress a coughing fit but it escaped anyway. Legrion was swinging down off of his horse. Straightening up. “I want to go with you. I can help you fight the bandits. I’m really quick and I’m so small they wouldn’t see me till I’d gutted them!” She rushed to explain with glee, waving her sword about to demonstrate. But Legrion’s face looked like he might be upset with her. Her face fell, “My home can be with you. We can have adventures and Madam Valerie needn’t look after me anymore.”
Legrion looked hurt. Puzzled. Confused. He may have only been twenty five but she usually considered him rather wise. Right now he looked like a lost student who didn’t know the answer to the question. She jabbed the air with her sword as if to prove she was ready for battle. A smile broke across the warrior’s features.
“Now, little goose, who is going to be there to protect Madam Valerie and the others if you come with me? They need you. Come on now,” Lifting her up, he set her in his saddle and led his gray mare back towards the orphanage. On the short trip back, he instructed her to teach the other children all about gutting bandits and made her giggle so hard that she broke into another fit of coughing. As she disappeared back through the door of the orphanage, Legrion sighed again. His mare bumped his arm with her nose. “I know, Star. Val’s going to need to lock that one up if she wants to keep her in. Just like you, huh?”
The mare huffed in rebuke. A deep throaty chuckle echoed off of the moonlight painted town as Legrion mounted back up, “Wild women, the lot of you.” Turning Star back to the road, he was off into the night. But from the top window of the orphanage, he carried the heart of a small girl with him.
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