This piece was written for the 12ShortStories.com prompt for April 2018, “Buy or Sell.” The challenge was to write a flash fiction story exactly 750 words. Here’s my take! Please leave your feedback in the comments. Enjoy!
“Blood and Bells”
by S.C. Jensen
750 words (exactly!)
Kelda hunkered low on the slushy bank and scrubbed at the blood on her nightdress. She pounded the pink-stained fabric against the frozen rocks like a lump of butchers’ meat that needed tendering. Blood leached into the icy water of the river and the fabric whitened, but her flesh grew red and chapped.
Late winter hung like a dingy grey sheet from the sky. Kelda squinted at the painful light of the horizon, dull and blinding. A cart clattered up the road next to the river. Kelda wrung out her gown and dashed up the road ahead of the traveller. Mother would be angry enough about the soiled clothing without her speaking to the Lost Folk.
The faint tinkling of bells followed as Kelda’s feet tripped across the hoary path. Winter’s innards broke through the surface and spilled out in wet, black gushes of icy muck. It slashed across the crust of snow like dried blood.
“Where have you been, girl?” Mother loomed in the doorway at the back of the apartment.
Kelda slipped past the statuesque woman and into the kitchen. “Sorry, Mother.”
“There’s work to do.” Mother’s red face pinched downward. “No time for messing about.”
“Yes, Mother.” Kelda balled up the damp nightdress in her raw fingers and ran for the stairs. “I’ll be right down.”
“What do you have there?” The woman’s voice sunk between Kelda’s shoulder blades and snapped her to a stop. “Show me.”
Kelda turned and, fingers trembling, held out the soiled linen. “I cleaned it as best I could.”
“Blood?” Mother snatched the gown from Kelda’s cold-cracked hands. “A skinny little thing like you?”
“I found some rags so I don’t mess my dresses.”
“I thought I’d get a few years out of you yet.”
Kelda wanted to sink into the floor, far away from the woman’s gaze. Mother’s grimace turned up at the corners. The joyless smile was more frightening than anger.
“You’re a woman now, though.”
A noise from the parlor window saved Kelda from further scrutiny.
“Never mind then.” Mother shoved the nightdress against Kelda’s chest and peered into the street. “Hang it up. We’ll talk more tonight.”
Downstairs, the front door slammed. The window rattled in its warped frame. Kelda watched the woman through the frosty glass as she bustled across the sodden street toward the market. The Inn rose above the stalls there, a queen upon her dais. Mother wasn’t going about the laundry.
A bitter taste flooded Kelda’s mouth. Her lip throbbed the girl realized she’d been biting it. She wiped at it with the back of her hand. More blood.
Farther up the road, the strange cart clattered through semi-frozen potholes, splashing black water into the air. Tiny silver bells jangled up from the street. Kelda tried not to fog the glass with her breath as she leaned closer.
Kelda finished ironing the pile of towels and bed linens from the Inn and began repairing the lacework on one of the girls’ dresses. The Madame hadn’t paid for a wash, just the stitching. A sour, yeasty smell rose from the garish purple fabric. Kelda’s tongue was like sackcloth in her mouth. She’d die before she’d pull that dress over her own head.
Daylight waned before Mother opened the door to the parlor. She pushed a scrawny, scabby-looking girl before her. “Show the child to your old room.”
The woman’s voice was as thin as her smile. The girl stared at Kelda with wide, glistening eyes.
“That’s Ma’am to you, now.” A heavy pouch clinked against her thigh when she leaned down to inspect Kelda’s lace. “You do good work, though. Pity for you there wasn’t a man to take you off my hands.”
“Who is taking me?” Kelda’s lips stuck to her teeth. She swallowed. “Ma’am.”
“You’ll deliver the Madame’s order tonight.” The woman wrapped a hand protectively around her purse. “Take your things with you.”
Long purple shadows tugged at Kelda as she walked toward the market. Toward Madame’s Inn. She carried the linens in a gunny sack over her back. The weight of it pinched her flesh and pulled at her dress like greedy fingers. Kelda’s eyes searched the darkened stalls of the market, hoping.
Then a breeze blew through the town from the west, and on it the sound of her freedom. Kelda dropped the sack into the muck and ran. She ran from town, away from the Inn, away from Madame.
She ran toward the jingling of bells.