Prompt: hightailing; raised by orcs
Somewhere in the forest, something was bleeding. The child woke up with the smell of it thick in her nostrils. She had slept inside that night. She curled, nose to knees, under the quilt the woman made for her and woke as warm as a bear in its den. A bubble of her own scent surrounded her, yet she still smelled blood. She uncurled and burrowed out of the blankets.
The knife aimed at her heart hit her leg instead and cut long instead of deep. Tangled hair bristling, the child sprang up and away. The tiny cottage seemed unusually full of furniture, closing in on her. She caromed into end tables crusted with half-melted candles and workbenches dusted with plants helpful and hazardous. She left splatters and streaks of blood in her wake. All the while, the woman and her great knife gave chase.
The woman wore clothes, unlike the child, and these were splattered with blood and feathers and hunks of gore. She smelled like a fresh kill, along with the familiar scents of tea and peppermint and bread. When the child launched herself one of the cottage’s little windows, the woman lunged after her with knife raised. Together, they smashed out the panes of bubbly glass, but the child could not fit through the window. She howled in frustration and terror, voice high and rough from disuse. She scrabbled away across the tops of tables, feet slipping on potion ingredients and kicking aside arcane tools.
The sound of things smashing filled the cottage. The child set off a cascade of bottles when she clawed her way across shelves in the search for higher, safer ground. In the rafters, aging ham hocks and smoked fish from the village hung in her way. The oily stink of the fish had driven her away before and kept the woman’s food stores safe from the child’s endless foraging. Now she was beyond caring or noticing. She hunched under the low roof and moved across beams as easily as the branches they had once been.
Under her, spilled potions hissed and bubbled, thrown into a dozen unintended reactions. The woman howled as well and tried to get away from the acrid fumes. Some of the potions went up like steam; others burned down into the rough floorboards. The child did not know what any of them were for. She only knew that the woman would leave the cottage with a goat wagon full of little bottles, jewel-bright, and return with preserved meat and sacks of potatoes and new, empty glass bottles. She only knew that, after such a trip, the woman would sit out at the edge of the forest and toss out scraps of meat until the child could no longer resist. The woman would coax her close enough to touch, unperturbed by the child’s growls as she ate the food like a starving dog. On cold nights, the woman would leave the door open long enough for the child to reluctantly follow, fire heat and blankets waiting for her.
The door stayed open, unlatched, and banged in the breeze. It required a leap of faith for the child to get out. She dove from the rafters like a cat, arms first, and hit hard enough to jar her joints and set her teeth rattling. For one terrible moment, her body could not move–arms locked, cut leg weakened, spine fused by fear. Then she ran, on four limbs and on two, hightailing it away from the cottage like a deer.
In front of the cottage, blood soaked the ground from a massacre of chickens. The goat hung broken-necked from its tether. The child ran faster than the woman ever could and left her wordlessly raging at the thin border of the forest. The child ran uphill, an easy task normally, but an exhausting feat now. Her head swam with adrenaline. The forest rushed by in flashes of color and shadow. The child chipped her long toenails against rocks as she climbed over old landslides and the roots of an eon of untouched growth. She ran and climbed and limped until she reached the top of the hill.
At the top, she had a view of everything. In one direction, the chimney smoke of the cottage rose, sweet and familiar as ever. In the opposite direction, the village waited like a trap in a clearing, strange and enormous. At her feet, the child found a pile of cut flowers and hand-twisted wreaths of ivy and morning glories. The remnants of older flowers, long since withered and browned, littered the ground as well. The child had dug there in the past, curious and cautious at once. She had found bones, smaller than her own, buried side by side.
The child had survived three such attacks now. She did not understand that the bones had once been little foundling children like her. She did not realize she was the longest living, nor that she was the only one to survive long enough to be coaxed back to the cottage by a woman as kind and contrite the next day she had been mad and murderous the previous. As she sat down to gingerly probe and scrub her cut leg, all she knew was that she had had nothing to eat that day, that she hurt, and that she would go in any direction to find food and rest, so long as it was not back toward the cottage.