The line was long. Longer than usual. It snaked around several blocks of cobbled streets from the old capital. Katia’s stomach growled loudly. She had not had a proper bite to eat in the last three days. Her younger brother, Mishka, fared no better as he moaned and whimpered while the line slowly moved one step at a time. At the end lay the bread men, but most importantly, Katia and Mishka’s hope of a good meal. Large, golden brown loaves of fresh baked bread that came from the bakeries from across the old capital. These were distributed to the less fortunate denizens of the city by groups of men who seemed to be chosen on account on how physically strong they were and how cruel they could be to others, at least this is what Katia suspected after seeing how they mistreated the people that came asking for their daily ration. Street dogs got better treatment, Katia thought bitterly as she held to Mishka’s hand. The line moved slowly and she just sighed.
After a long while the line turned a corner and Katia and Mishka’s hearts sank. The line went on and on, the end of it on the far horizon in the middle of a plaza. There isn’t enough bread for all of us, Katia thought with a taste of panic on the back of her mouth. A gentle squeeze from Mishka’s hand distracted her momentarily, she turned to look at his sibling who had just turned 8 years old a few days ago. He looked at Katia with pleading eyes, “The line’s too long, Katia! We won’t get any bread!”, he moaned softly. I know, she thought, thinking that if they stayed there they would go hungry yet another day. A crow cawed loudly as it passed by, uncaring to their problems, and Katia wished they were birds to fly away from this horrid existence.
She looked towards the end of the line, still far away, then back to her brother, then closed her eyes. She opened them, a plan was in her mind. “We won’t go hungry, Mishka. I promise.”, she breathed. With a firm grasp on Mishka’s hand she led him out of their spot in the line and marched towards the end. An old woman from the back shouted that they would lose their spot. No, thought Katia with fierce determination, I am securing it.
They kept a steady pace while making their way to the end when she noticed that a man walking down the streets covered in a black cape seemed to have an odd smile on his lips and slowly nodded in her direction. Not knowing the man or what his gesture meant, she continued walking, thinking about what she had to do. “Mishka”, her voice had an edge to it, “I want you to head back to our place in the alley. I will get us bread. Will you do this for me, please?”, she continued walking with her face looking at the end of the line. A small gasp meant that Mishka had heard her and was now a bit scared, he didn’t like to be left alone, “Ok, but please don’t take too long.”, spoke the soft voice. Katia felt a rush of affection for him, he was so small and frail, but if she was going to steal from the bread men, she could not be burdened by his small feet and short legs. Speed was key here. There was a final squeeze from her brother’s hand and then she let go of him as she continued making her way. Nothing would stop her now.
Katia was close to the end of the line, the voices of the bread men began to become more than distant echoes and were starting to be heard quite clearly. “NEXT! Hurry it up, we haven’t all day now! Here, this is your daily bread, so thank the Lord and your Tsar, wretch! NEXT!”, barked a big man at the end of the line, he was ugly, with a thick black moustache and long greasy hair, a red shirt and brown leather pants made him look unremarkable, save for a group of hideous scars that he bore on his face. Katia knew this man was probably dangerous, so she had to be very careful. Bending down on the floor she picked a sharp-looking rock. She was ready, for Mishka.
As she approached the end of the line, Katia noticed a young man at the front speak some words to the bread man giving out the daily ration of bread. It was probably something displeasing because the bread men strode over to where the young man was, looking menacing, and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, “Only ONE loaf per family! Are you deaf? Shall I poke my sword into your ears to get the wax out of them?”, he shouted menacingly as he pulled a short curved sword and placed it over the young man’s cheek whose eyes opened wide in terror. The other bread men laughed. The scarred bread man shoved the man hard, making him fall back while the people behind him in line scattered several steps back. “Piss off or I’ll decide this city needs one less mouth to feed.”, he spat on the ground and returned to his position. “Next!”, he shouted, indifferent to suffering. Katia had seen enough. She took aim and swung hard.
A soft, but audible, crack. The sound of teeth being broken out of their sockets by a very well placed rock hit. The scarred man screamed and swore loudly, but Katia was already running towards the large bag full of bread and quick as a gust of wind she snatched two loaves of bread and started running towards a nearby alley while shouts of bread men indicated that they were now chasing her. She had almost reached the alley’s entrance when she saw him again, the man with the black cape was looking at her go into the alley with an air of curiosity, almost interest, that odd smile still on his lips. Katia put it out of her mind and kept running. With any hope she would be with Mishka soon.
She turned several corners in the alleyways of the old capital. A labyrinth for the unitiated. Katia was not worried of getting lost, she knew these streets well since she was a very young girl and had to beg on the streets while Mishka was an even younger and smaller boy than he was now. She heard the bread men still giving chase, but their shouts were more distant each time, she was finally losing them. Any moment now she would reach her and Mishka’s hiding place and they would be safe. The next moment she was flying as her feet left the ground. I can’t fly, she thought curious, almost wanting to laugh, even if a part of her mind started scrambling with fear and panic. She hit the ground hard.
Pain was all over her face, something wet was starting to cover it. Copper filled her mouth. Very slowly and shaking she pushed herself up in a standing position, ready to continue running. All she needed was to pick the bread from the ground. She didn’t feel the first punch on her stomach. On her knees again, gasping for air, she tried getting up when a kick to her face sent her flying. More pain, more taste of copper. Passing a hand across her face she drew it back covered in blood. Katia tried to get up, but the dizziness and pain in her body made it very hard to focus. “You little bitch, thought I wouldn’t catch you, eh?”, spoke a harsh voice and Katia felt the sudden sting of a slap to her face and she was back on the ground, face first. She whimpered, her legs and hands refused to help her stand up. Then she was up in the air, roughly lifted from her neck she came face to face with the scarred bread man. “You’re mine, thief. Thought you’d steal from the Tsar’s bread men, eh? That rock you threw at me? It really hurt.”, and he grinned, showing a gap on his smile, his lips covered in blood. “I’m going to make you pay. I’ll cut you bad.”, his face was a few centimeters from Katia’s, she could feel his hot breath on her face and it made her sick. A flash of steel and out came the curved sword, “I’m going to enjoy cutting you.”, he almost leered at her. Then a voice spoke from behind, “I would not do that if I were you, comrade.”
It was a calm voice, yet it made Katia’s hairs on the back of her neck stand on their end. “Who the Hell?”, the scarred man turned around, still holding Katia by the neck. Despite seeing things a bit out of focus after the recent blows she received, Katia recognize the man with the black cape. His smile no longer on his face. Instead, he now showed no emotion at all whatsoever. She could not say why, but she started to feel fear towards this man rather than her attacker. “Piss off. This little thief stole from us, and also attacked me. I’m going to pay her back!”, the scarred man spat, flecks of blood fell on the ground, hatred etched on his face. He wanted blood. Katia’s.
The man with the black cape remained silent for a moment and spoke again, “She did something foolish, but she showed courage and determination. I respect that, so I don’t wish her to be harmed any further. I will ask only once, comrade: let her go. I already spoke to your other bread men, they already returned to their duty. Be smart and follow their lead.” The bread man’s face turned red and his eyes narrowed into slits as he squeezed Katia’s neck, making her gasp for air, “I am not your comrade and you’re one step of getting gutted by my sword after I do the little bitch in, I don’t care if you tricked my brothers into going back. She’s dead, so leave now, whoever you are.”, he spoke in a low menacing voice, then coughed out a glob of blood into the ground. The man with the black cape smiled that odd smile again, sending shivers down Katia’s bruised body. “Apologies for not introducing myself sooner, comrade.”, he spoke and made emphasis on pronouncing “comrade”. This time, the man grinned and Katia wondered why the bread man wasn’t running away in fear. “I am Vinzo.”, the man said in a soft voice.
It was all over before Katia knew what had happened or how. One minute the man called Vinzo was several steps away from them, the next he was standing next to the bread man. Color drained from the bread man’s face and his grip over Katia loosened, she fell to the ground hard with a yelp of pain. The bread man made an odd gurgling sound as blood started to slowly pour first in a trickle, then a as a small stream from his mouth. He fell to his knees, eyes wide in surprise and pain. Then with a final thud fell face-first to the ground. In a matter of seconds a pool of blood started forming underneath him.
Katia was too sore, tired and scared to move, she stared at Vinzo. Looking down at her he gently picked her up and set her in a standing position. A handkerchief appeared on his hand from somewhere and he started wiping some of the blood from her face. “Your bruises will heal, and you have your bread. You and your brother shall not go hungry today at least.” When Vinzo saw that Katia was not falling back to the ground he turned around and started to walk away. She was not sure what madness possessed her, but she called out to him, “Wait, please! You saved me from this man, and I am grateful, but….why?” Vinzo slowly turned back to face her, the odd smile on his lips again, “Because, a long time ago, I was once like you. And…”, he hesitated for a brief second, “…because you don’t deserve to die. Not today at least. Farewell.”, he walked away and after a turn of a corner Katia was left alone with the bread man’s corpse. She stood in silence for a moment, taking in his words, “Because I was once like you…”. She wondered about them, but then reality hit her. Mishka, she thought. Grabbing the loaves of bread she spared a second to kick the man’s corpse on the side of his head as she made her way back to his younger brother. At least for today and maybe tomorrow, they would not starve.