Chapter 71: The Rose Dawn Orphanage
The sound of a nesting pair of bluebirds singing outside the bedroom window of the refurbished servant’s house woke Ivy just as the first rays of dawn broke across the lush country landscape of pre-autumn foliage outside the narrow glass window. She quickly removed her blankets and then moved through her morning routine. Her internal clock had regressed quite naturally to the early morning hours of a working maid despite her newly established position as Matron of the Rose Dawn Orphanage.
Extra time was needed to remove her old bandages, then rinse, tap dry, and apply ointment to the sores on her shoulders, chest, stomach, and the few places on her back she could reach where the worst of the curse mark had spread. Once done, Ivy meticulously wrapped herself in fresh cotton bandages, clenching her teeth every time the material grated against the inflamed skin until she secured the end of the cotton dressing two inches below the mark with a safety pin.
The young matron took a moment to steady her breathing and unclench her jaw before moving to the refurbished oak vanity desk that had once belonged to Mrs. Turnbell. Once there, she opened the sturdy mahogany medicine box with shaking fingers and pulled out one of the three remaining vials of Hana’s blood-infused tonic. Ivy quickly dumped the sticky fluid down her throat, tapping the glass vial against her teeth to encourage the last drops to fall free. Her clenched muscles relaxed as she sagged into the chair, gripping the desk with her left hand as she closed her eyes with a faint moan of relief at the almost immediate effects that numbed the worst of her pain.
‘Only two left. Should I send a letter to Lady Hana? She promised to bring the next batch when she and the Duchess came to visit the orphanage.’
Ivy massaged her aching jaw and temple as she listened to the gentle ticking of the grandfather clock in her study just across the hall. She soon roused herself and continued getting dressed, grateful for the conservative style of the many full-length dresses of solid dark or neutral earth colors patterned with various flowers and lace that lined her wardrobe.
Once sufficiently clothed, the young matron opened her jewelry box and pulled out the obsidian wolf necklace the Duchess had gifted her during the Royal Hunt. She shivered beneath the cool magic that radiated from the speckled black gemstone. Something she had learned to appreciate during the warm periods of the day when she had to be outside, either checking up on the children or attending to other matters around the estate. While she had been given a handful of staff to help manage the orphanage, Ivy still oversaw all matters that required dipping into the budget assigned to its operations.
The young matron grabbed her shawl from the dresser and draped it carefully around her shoulders and neck before leaving the bedroom of her private suite on the second floor, complete with a study and private bath. She took the stairs to the second floor, where the rest of the orphanage staff had small private rooms, a shared public bathroom, and a community kitchen.
The orphanage cook, Dennis, who had previously served in the Turnbell household, nodded towards the matron as she descended the stairs.
“Morning, Lady Ivy.”
“Good morning, Dennis. On your way over?”
“I am. Those stoves won’t light themselves. Come on, Peter!”
The cook’s apprentice quickly rushed out of his room, bobbing a quick greeting in the young matron’s direction before following Dennis as the two made their way through the back garden toward what had once been Turnbell Manor.
Ivy trailed behind them slowly, enjoying her morning along the rose bushes that lined the border walls of the garden. While the scent still carried the tainted memories of Lady Helena’s rose garden, where she and Gus had suffered at the ends of their master’s whip, the new garden held a different meaning to her as she gazed up at the second floor where the partly opened curtains revealed a flurry of activity as the Head Boy and Head Girl rushed to get the rest of the children under their care ready for the day.
One of the smaller girls, Holly, quickly hid behind the curtain, giggling behind her small hands before noticing the matron below. Ivy quickly smiled and waved toward the small child reassuringly, then chuckled as Sarah, the Head Girl, flung the curtain aside to glare disapprovingly down at the hideaway. As the pair of children disappeared from view, Ivy continued her walk towards the back door, which led to the manor’s kitchen.
‘When I think of what each of them has been through at such a young age, I can’t help but want to be stronger so I can make their future better.’
Peter greeted the matron at the threshold with a shy smile and a freshly poured cup of coffee. “The cook put in sugar, milk, and caramel just the way you like it, Lady Ivy.”
“Thank you, Peter.”
The cook apprentice smiled as he turned to leave, then paused to add, “Oh! And he said breakfast will be ready in about fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you. Has Mrs. Spenser come down yet?”
“Not yet.” They both glanced to the ceiling above them as the piercing sounds of a child screaming echoed through the house. “No doubt she’ll be down soon, though.”
“I had better check on the children,” Ivy murmured before taking a quick sip of the warm, aromatic drink and then handing it back to him. “Would you put this by my place at the table?”
“Yes. Of course, Lady Ivy.”
The stairwell and foyer were one of the few rooms inside the manor that remained unaltered. Just touching the dark walnut wood was enough to bring back the days when Ivy shadowed Maura down these stairs. Her young Mistress always paused on the last step to inhale and exhale, as if mentally preparing herself for whatever battle lay ahead. Ivy did so as well, exhaling slowly as she began to climb the stairs where the shrill shrieks of at least three children now echoed like a siren above her.
Mrs. Spenser, the night warden who watched over the children while they slept, appeared at the top just as Ivy reached the middle landing. The elderly woman mouthed a quick “good morning,” humming happily as she escaped to the bottom floor to grab breakfast.
Ivy shook her head and then continued to one of the three large bedrooms with six beds each to accommodate the seventeen children they currently housed, which consisted of eleven girls and six boys ranging in age from five to twelve.
The Head Boy, David, greeted her with his usual polite smile that never quite reached his hazel-grey eyes as he finished lining up the last of his young charges, a boy of eight years old, in the hallway where they waited for permission to head to breakfast. The young matron smiled and waved her hand permissively toward the stairs before turning to the girl’s rooms, where she found three of the youngest lying on the floor wailing pitifully, with Sarah standing protectively above them, staring down a rather flustered Mrs. Day, who winced with each repeating belting scream.
“What is going on?” Ivy called out as loudly and calmly as she could manage.
The three little girls fell silent as Sarah and Mrs. Day whipped their gaze in her direction.
“I’m sorry, Lady Ivy,” Mrs. Day rushed out first, glancing incredulously toward the suspiciously quiet children. “They are being completely unmanageable today, and your Head Girl isn’t helping.”
“Ah, it’s you who isn’t helping!” Sarah retorted sharply. “I told you I can manage them just fine on my own. They don’t know, trust, or particularly like you, and this isn’t helping.”
“Sarah, I’m just trying to do my job!”
“You’re here to supervise, not push and pinch the children that aren’t moving fast enough for your taste,” the Head Girl countered sharply.
“What? I didn’t—”
“It’s my responsibility to get the girls up and ready for breakfast—”
“Yet you’re constantly lagging behind!”
“Because I have twice as many children to get ready as David does!”
“Which is why I stepped in to help—”
“And this is what happened because of your so-called help!” Sarah snapped as she pointed toward the three little girls, who resumed their shrieking on cue.
“Enough. Enough!” Ivy said firmly as she stepped between the Head Girl and the teacher. “David is already downstairs, Mrs. Day. Why don’t you head below and get the boys started on breakfast.”
“These children need discipline and structure, Lady Ivy,” Mrs. Day protested, heading to the bedroom door all the same. “And that one needs to be taught to respect her elders!”
The Head Girl sneered scornfully in the teacher’s direction, prompting the older woman to depart with an offended huff before turning to pull the three girls to their feet one by one. “Alright now, let’s finish getting dressed. I can smell breakfast from here.”
“What is it? What is it?” Holly demanded, wiping her tears with an eager, giddy smile.
With a concentrated look, Sarah sniffed the air dramatically before replying, “Bacon, biscuits, eggs, and—cinnamon?” Her gray-blue eyes narrowed before she smiled. “Apple cinnamon oatmeal.”
“You’re amazing,” one of the other girls, Macie, whispered in awe. “How do you do that.”
“It’s a secret,” Sarah murmured, tapping her nose. She quickly turned Macie towards one of the beds where the girls’ uniforms had been laid out. “But if we don’t hurry, the boys will eat all the bacon and jam before we get there!”
With the three miniature stragglers sufficiently motivated, Ivy quietly excused herself from the room to allow them privacy to change. Sarah and her three young charges soon joined the two lines of girls standing in the hallway, who all eagerly followed the Head Girl downstairs to breakfast.
The girls filed through the kitchen, where Peter handed them a prepared tray of food, which they carried to the three long tables in the extended dining room. Ivy waited at the end of the line to receive her tray, thanked the chef and apprentice for their work, and then joined Mrs. Spenser and a rather sullen Mrs. Day at the teacher’s table.
“I say. You barely eat anything at all, Lady Ivy,” Mrs. Spenser observed as she took in the young matron’s reduced portions.
“I’m afraid my stomach is easily agitated these days,” Ivy replied smoothly. “A heavy breakfast is the last thing I need.”
“Fair enough. As long as you have the energy to work, I suppose that’s all that matters.”
“I wish I could survive off so little food,” Mrs. Day commented as she loaded another biscuit with apple jam. “But children can be so exhausting.”
‘Then why become a teacher?’
The young matron forced a smile and continued eating her breakfast slowly. She had only just finished off a quarter of her meal when the groundskeeper, Tom, who usually ate in the kitchen with the rest of the staff, quickly skirted the children’s tables in her direction.
“Lady Ivy, knights are at the front gate asking to speak with you.”
“From Bastiallano?” Ivy replied as she swiftly set down her utensils, trying to mask her excitement and relief.
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Is the Duchess with them?”
“No. It was just the six knights and a child.”
‘A child? What is keeping Maura so busy that she hasn’t been able to visit as promised?’
The matron locked her smile in place as she picked up her napkin and dabbed her lips. “I see. Would you mind accompanying me to the gate, Tom?”
“Oh, yes. Of course, Lady Ivy.”
A middle-aged man dressed in the Bastalliano knight’s uniform, now covered in dust from their travels, dismounted as Tom opened the gate at the end of the long driveway. Ivy stepped through, shielding her eyes against the rising sun as she offered the knight and his men a friendly smile.
“Sergeant Bryant at your service, my Lady,” the knight stated promptly as he stepped towards them, his gaze scanning the old stone walls on either side of the iron gate, which connected to the overgrown wooden fences along the road.
“Good morning, Sergeant Bryant,” Ivy responded, glancing at the young boy waking up behind one of the five still-mounted knights. “Might I ask what brings you here so early in the morning?”
“It might be easier if you read the letter first,” Bryant replied as he turned back to her, pulling an envelope from the flap pocket of his jacket.
The young matron accepted the letter, noting the Duchess’s wax seal, which she snapped open before pulling out the elegantly written letter that was not Lady Maura’s handwriting.
Dear Viscountess Ivy Koresh,
Something unexpected has occurred which will keep the Duchess occupied and unreachable for the foreseeable future. Per Colonel Isaac’s request, I have taken over all official matters related to Lady Kirsi’s charitable activities, including Rose Dawn Orphanage.
Traveling with the Sergeant who brought you this letter is a boy the Duchess wished to place in your care. He is one of a few immune to the plague’s sickness. Rest assured, the physicians have cleared him for release, but since he was the only member of his family and village to survive, we thought it best he was placed in an orphanage under the Duchess’s supervision.
Additionally, Colonel Isaac has sent Sergeant Bryant and his men to stay with you for your protection until a more permanent security plan can be put in place.
I hope to visit you shortly as promised with a gift. Until then, please be well.
Viscountess Hana Sommerset.
P.S. The boy’s name is Jesse.
The young matron quickly closed the letter and raised her eyes to the patiently waiting Sergeant. “Has—something happened to the Duchess?”
Sergeant Bryant studied her silently for a moment before offering a faint shrug. “You know as much as I do, my Lady. My orders were to set up security for the orphanage and its residents. I was told you had a stable where we could keep our horses and a field to set up a temporary camp?”
“Yes,” Ivy murmured nervously, rubbing the corner of the letter.
‘What did Hana mean? Why would Maura be unreachable? What could the Duchess be involved in that has her so preoccupied she can’t even write her own letters to me or visit?’
The young matron quickly shook away the invasive thoughts that whispered callously in her ears and then squared her shoulders as she turned to face the yawning boy seated behind one of the knights. “Well, then, Jesse. You had better come with me to grab breakfast with the other children. We can sort out your uniform later. Tom—” The matron turned to where the groundsman watched from beside the open gate, “—Please lead our guests to the stable and help them find whatever they need. I’ll inform the chef of your visit, Sergeant, so that he can make arrangements for the duration of your stay.”
Jesse dropped down sullenly from the horse and walked stiffly through the gate where he stood to one side as the knights trailed through behind Tom, who jogged in the direction of the side gate that led to the field and stables.
“Thank you, Viscountess,” Sergeant Bryant called out after closing the gate and climbing back into his saddle.
Ivy smiled as she moved to stand beside the newest addition to her orphanage. She waited for the trail of dust left by the knights to disappear before offering Jesse her hand, which the boy promptly ignored as he trudged along beside her toward the orphanage.
The other children were just polishing off their plates when Ivy returned with Jesse in tow. The room fell into an awkward silence as Ivy introduced the boy and then asked David to fetch a stool for him while Mrs. Day went to the kitchen to collect another tray.
Jesse kept his gaze as close to the ground as possible while Ivy led him to his prepared seat. The Head Boy quietly returned to his place at the head of the table, where he and the other boys watched their newest member with silent curiosity as Dennis brought out a tray loaded with extra eggs and bacon.
“There you go. Eat as much as you like, Jesse,” Ivy said encouragingly as she stepped back to give the boy some space. The young matron smiled happily as Jesse grabbed one of the fresh, sizzling slices of bacon with his fingers, ignoring the utensils on the tray, then blinked as he lifted it to his nose for a quick sniff.
‘Does he—think our food is poisoned?’
While the knights had fed him well, it was nothing compared to the delicious fresh food at the orphanage. Jesse struggled to remain awake in the afterglow of the greasy, hearty meal as he followed the line of boys, most of them younger than himself, from the dining room to a classroom filled with desks where a wall of letters he couldn’t read or identify waited. He quietly found a seat in the corner and watched silently as the Head Boy, David, led the nearly twenty boys and girls through what Mrs. Day called the alphabet.
Jesse was somewhat embarrassed at his lack of knowledge. Most of the people in his village only knew how to spell their names and identify basic numbers required for bartering and trade. He was relieved to notice that several of the other older children were in similar positions, including the Head Girl, Sarah, who sat in the front row sounding out each letter with careful concentration between two of the smaller girls, who giggled as they played with Sarah’s brown curls and pink ribbons.
Overall, the atmosphere was surprisingly lax and easygoing. The Matron, Lady Ivy, explained that they were undertaking what was called a “review period” to determine each child’s level of education and comprehension. In a couple of days, they would split the children up according to their knowledge and skill of learning for more in-person instruction. The older children were encouraged to catch up to David’s level of learning as quickly as possible so they might begin apprenticing for the jobs they would be undertaking once they came of age.
Most of Mrs. Day’s lessons went completely over Jesse’s head, which lulled lower and lower towards his chest as the early autumn heat washed over the classroom through the large windows at his left. He awoke with a start and drool running down his chin and shirt, to a finger in his ribs, and a very annoyed David seated beside him.
The children were given a brief period of free time before lunch, during which David showed Jesse the single room the boys shared and gestured to an empty bed crammed into the far left corner by the door. Next, Jesse was presented with a change of uniform that was a bit baggy but comfortable and a slate board similar to what the other children kept in their desks for practicing letters and numbers. He changed and then carefully stowed the curiously flat tool that appeared to be made of stone in his desk before filling his stomach with a quick lunch of fresh bread, chopped squares of cheese, beans, and pickled vegetables.
Jesse dozed off again during geography class, barely cognizant of Mrs. Day’s description of the four main kingdoms surrounding Lafeara with a brief overview of their monarchy, culture, and religion. The topic soon turned to Holy Saints Day and the approaching Coronation of Lafeara’s next king, which the children listened to eagerly enough, even after David pointed out that they wouldn’t see any of it this far out in the countryside.
The boy fell asleep sometime after that, only to be woken up by a gentle nudge to his elbow by the Head Girl, Sarah, whose curious gray-blue eyes stared down at him with a rather emotionless assessing look.
“You might as well wake up now. Class is over,” Sarah commented dryly, glancing over her shoulder to where Mrs. Day was busy talking to David. “And it’s the boy’s turn to clean the classroom today.”
Jesse straightened and rubbed his eyes as he took in the room around them, which, aside from a few desks and chairs out of place, looked just as pristine as when they had entered. “It looks pretty clean to me,” he muttered, stretching out the stiff muscles he had gathered while traveling on horseback from Bastiallano.
“You or I might agree on that, but Mrs. Day believes in the principle of the thing.”
“Principle? What’s that?”
Sarah snorted quietly and shook her head. “Never mind, I’m taking the girls outside. David will let you know if they need help with anything.”
“Ah, okay,” Jesse grunted, rubbing his chin and neck as he watched her leave. His view was quickly obscured by none other than David, whose hazel-gray eyes raked over him with a look of annoyance that automatically irritated the boy.
“Are you feeling rested now, worm? Might you be free to help with clean up?”
“Ah, sure. What do you need help with?”
“Nothing complicated. The classroom has to be swept, the desks and chairs wiped down, and the trash taken outside. I guess you can handle emptying the dustbin once they finish sweeping.”
The Head Boy rolled his eyes and moved off. From what Jesse could see, David didn’t partake in the cleaning much aside from acting as a supervisor, correcting the boys when they cut corners, or lecturing those who made a mess while cleaning.
‘He reminds me of the Baron’s kid. Always acting like he thought he was better than the rest of us.’
The task Jesse had been assigned had seemed simple at first, but on his way back from the outside bin, the cook’s assistant flagged him down and tasked the boy with carrying out the peelings and other food scraps from the kitchen, which were to be taken to the compost pile in the north garden across the road from the orphanage’s main gate.
Jesse accepted the loaded wooden bucket offered to him without comment. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to dealing with David again any time soon. The familiar feel of labor and purpose refueled his tired limbs as he trudged out the front door and down the long drive to the main gate, where the knights let him through without fuss after Jesse explained his purpose.
The northern garden was smaller in size compared to the gardens his village had looked after. The groundskeeper waved Jesse down, who once more explained his reason for being there, then directed the boy to the center of the four fields, only two of which appeared to be in use. Jesse glanced over the crops of pumpkins, carrots, and what he guessed to be some sort of winter squash as he trudged along the dirt path, shifting the bucket from one arm to the other to strengthen his weakened muscles.
The feeling of soil beneath his feet and the fresh open air that carried the fragrant scent of the compost pile at the garden’s center filled the boy with nostalgia that only grew heavier as Jesse added his bucket of scraps to the mound.
It hit him then, like a punch to the gut, how much he’d missed the tired ache in his shoulders, the smell of earth and harvest—absent the aroma of death. And with that feeling came the sudden unshakable reality that Jesse would never spend another endless summer breaking his back combating the relentless weeds in his family’s garden—or see his father’s rarely smiling face, hear his mother singing, laugh at his brother’s jokes, or watch his baby sister grow up to take her first steps. He had been so proud of becoming a big brother—but now, he didn’t even have a family.
They were gone, and the hole left in him was so vast that all Jesse could do was crumple to his knees and scream out the anger, pain, and confusion into the quiet field that smelled like home.
Sarah looked up from her needlework and frowned as the distant notes of a broken heart whispered across the warm breeze through the cracked bedroom window. With a faint sigh, she carefully tied off the stitch of her unfinished embroidery, a crow surrounded by thorny roses, leaving a long tail of red thread behind to pick up her work later. The Head Girl then carefully folded the handkerchief and placed it inside a worn wicker basket that she tucked under her bed before moving to the bedroom door.
Most of the other older girls were bent over their stitching projects, assigned to them by Mrs. Day, who didn’t believe in idle hands, while the youngest napped happily over the plate of butter biscuits and jam sent up from the kitchen. Sarah quickly focused her attention on the next oldest girl, Ruth, and cleared her throat, “I’m stepping out for a moment. Keep an eye on things here for me, will you.”
Ruth frowned but nodded before returning to her embroidering with a sigh that suggested she would rather be doing anything else but needlework.
Sarah’s sensitive ears made navigating the large manor without being detected quite easy. Soon enough, she made her way to the foyer and front door only to freeze as the knight outside made his presence known.
‘What do I do? I can’t use the back door. It’s right by the kitchen, and the cook watches it like a hawk. Perhaps one of the classroom windows?’
The Head Girl smiled. Rather than being annoyed by the additional security, she found the added challenge thrilling. After successfully dropping into the flowerbed outside the classroom window, Sarah began to wonder why she was going through all this effort to comfort a strange boy she’d only met.
‘Nevermind. No point in going back now empty-handed.’
She found Jesse lying on his side beside the compost pile, staring at the dirt with a blank expression Sarah knew all too well. The Head Girl cleared her throat, cautious in her approach, as she nudged the empty wooden bucket that had rolled to the edge of the pumpkin patch.
“It will be dinner time soon. You should head back now and change your clothes before David or Mrs. Day yells at you.”
The boy offered her no reaction whatsoever.
Sarah sighed and glanced about the garden, observing the vibrant orange pumpkins sprouting all around them with little interest until gray-blue eyes settled on the distant road beyond the wooden fence. “Did you know that if you follow that road southwest, you’ll reach the capital by carriage in less than half a day? If you went north, it would take you a full day to reach the territory of Bastiallano, which belongs to the Duchess of Winter.”
“How would you know? Your village lies to the south, doesn’t it?”
The boy stiffened and then sat up slowly to glare at her. “I know because I’ve seen her.”
“You lie,” Sarah countered quickly before blinking in sudden realization as his words rang true in her ears. “Wait, you—have seen her?”
“Her knights rescued me,” Jesse replied, absently brushing the dirt from his hair and shoulder. “I saw her when she came to visit them.”
“What is she like?” Sarah asked eagerly, moving closer to crouch down beside him. “Was she terrifying? Was she pretty? They say her hair is as white as snow, and her eyes are a crimson bloody red.”
“They’re not red,” Jesse corrected, wrinkling his nose at the idea. “They’re blue. Cold blue. Like the sky in winter. But her hair was white.”
The boy blinked up at her before averting his gaze quickly. “Why should I tell you?”
“Because you’ve seen her! Do you have any idea how hard it is to see Kirsi now that she rarely ever leaves Bastiallano? I plan to travel there once I’m sixteen years old. I’ll become her lady-in-waiting or maybe a seamstress—”
He snorted. “She’ll have plenty of those as a Duchess.”
“But a witch needs a witch as a close companion to guard their secrets,” Sarah stated in a matter-of-fact tone as she shrugged off his comment. “I just want the opportunity to meet her at least. Ice witches are incredibly rare.”
“You—you’re a witch?” Jesse mumbled numbly after her words sank in.
“Of course I am. Can’t you tell?”
“How the hell am I supposed to tell?”
Sarah tilted her head at him quizzically, then leaned in to rap her knuckles against his forehead. “What are you—a dud?”
“No! I just—didn’t know I was a witch until recently,” he muttered, leaning away from her as his cheeks flushed red.
“Ohhh…” Her expression turned grim for a moment before she straightened and stretched out her arms and legs. “Well, David and I should be able to teach you the basics. We’re still novices ourselves, but—” She raised a finger and offered him a wink as a gust of wind blew dirt and dried weeds into a spiraling dirt devil that swept around the compost pile before crumbling. “Granted, I can’t keep it up for long unless I’m angry or distraught—but then it’s more difficult to control.”
Jesse blinked painfully against the dust in his eyes and wiped away the smudged dirt along his cheeks from her demonstration. “If you’re a witch—shouldn’t you be in a coven or something?”
“It’s not automatic unless you’re part of the right family,” Sarah replied dismissively with a faint grimace. “You have to prove yourself and get an invite—otherwise, you remain a covenless witch.”
“What’s a covenless witch?”
The Head Girl folded her arms across her chest before answering through gritted teeth, “Basically, it means you’re on your own. No protection, guidance, or sanctuary to run to.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Sarah rolled her eyes before narrowing her gray-blue eyes on him. “You tell me. I wouldn’t be here if my family had been part of a Coven.”
Jesse opened his mouth, then closed it as he rolled onto his feet and bobbed his head towards her apologetically. “Sorry.”
The Head Girl rolled her eyes again and then spun on her heels. “Come on then, grab your bucket. Let’s get back before they notice I’m missing.”
“Why would you be missing?”
“Because I snuck out without informing Mrs. Day.”
“Why did you sneak out?”
“What are you, five? So many questions.”