Anna was an orphan.
In such a village, ransacked by cruel poverty, like so many others, it meant that there was little less straw to sleep on, a little less to eat, a more drafty place to sleep, crammed with all the other orphans. You were tucked only a bracket or two under the usual village-folk. Even then, such things as status hardly mattered whilst everyone scrambled for something to eat. In fact, if it weren't for one small detail, there would have been virtually no difference in her life and that of a baker's daughter.
She had no parents.
No matter how hard Anna tried to be strong, to be callous, to be indifferent to this blatantly obvious void in her life, that always stopped her in her tracks.
She tried as hard as she could not to devote much thought to this. No amount of wishing would give her a father or mother. No amount of wishing would give her a different place to return to after her escapades to the picturesque fields outside the village. This had been drilled into her from the moment she'd set foot in the orphanage. She had eagerly complied, playing only with fellow orphans so that no one would point out the black, gaping hole in her existence, because it would be there forever.
Anna rolled over on her straw mat and sighed, wallowing in her gloom for a few moments before getting up. Sleep had evaded her all night. The cold breezes whistling through the gaps in the walls were viciously frigid, and the dingy mound of filthy silage was poor protection.
Letting her gaze drift across the room, she saw a stray strand of straw skittering across the faded floorboards. That's odd, she thought. With the little hay there was, any child should easily pin it down, regardless of any night draft that seeped through the cracks. So that must mean...
A chill tingled down her spine as she slowly looked past the rogue ply to the empty straw behind it, and the creaky door, which hung ajar.
Her feet heavy with apprehension, she slowly walked over to the door frame, and placing her hand tentatively upon it, looked outside into the suffocating darkness outside.
There was no one there.
A clumsy, weighted blow shattered her skull. Fireworks popped in her eyes as she reeled, all cohesive thought knocked clean out of her head. She stumbled as her surroundings liquefied and pain shot through her cranium. Before she could get an idea of what hat transpired it came again in another relentless clout.
That was all it took for her to be out cold.
As fast as blinking, Anna's lashes brushed against grime, and gritty stone ground into her cheek. Ashen bricks flooded her vision as functionality returned to her disgruntled mind. She struggled, trying to move, but her arms and legs were tightly bound by ropes. She had been trussed like a turkey and propped up against a wall like a mannequin.
Not only this, but a dress or sorts had awkwardly been shoved over her head. It was very heavy, and itchy. Layered fabric smothered her legs and feet and strained at the ropes tied around her.
Fantastic, she thought.
Then a thick, slimy drawl slithered out of a unseen mouth.
A sharp one whipped out of another.
"Her eyes are open. I'm pretty sure she is."
And then another-this time very soft, and quiet, but with cold apathy and devilry clearly defined in metallic undertones.
"Cut the ropes-but don't let the little snot-nose see who we are. That' s a squealer if I ever saw one."
A silver blade flashed down her back, too close for comfort. The ropes fell like a mummy's wrappings. Gasping, Anna fell to her knees. She struggled to get up, encumbered by the the thick skirt choking her legs. But before she could turn around, a smooth, cold blade was pressed to her neck. She froze instantly, suddenly aware of the vital arteries it contained.
"Don't move a muscle, brat. If you do what we say we might let you go alive."
Anna tried to say something, but her tongue was suddenly a lumped, useless mound in her mouth. She tried to nod, but then realized the knife against her neck meant that such a movement would mean certain death. She felt the eyes burning into her as her silence dragged on.
This did nothing to quell her anxiety.
There was brief pause.
"Before midnight"-there was a slight jerking movement indicating a finger jabbed at the moon-"you are to pick 13 ripe blackberries"-a wicker basket was thrust into her numb fingers-"and put them in the this basket."
Anna tightened her grip on the straw handle to keep from dropping it.
"They need to be per-fect-ly ripe, understand? Not a inch should even be slightly tinged with red. Understand?"
Anna stuttered out a sound that sounded vaguely like a yes.
The blade withdrew from the cutthroat position, and Anna slumped forward. A cold wind blew, making goose bumps spring onto her skin. Shivering, she turned around to see that she was once again alone, as if nothing had ever happened. The dress and the basket seemed to burn her skin, painfully blunt reminders that this wasn't some fictional nightmare, a mere sleepwalking episode that went too far.
This was real.