Ella headed to the marketplace early the next day. She had considered asking Lucinda to come, but had left her sleeping. It was a rare sight to see her in a simple grey nightgown instead of her usual satin dresses and makeup. She’d almost looked like a child again, and so peaceful that Ella left her to enjoy a few more hours of sleep.
Lucinda seemed to have kept her promise; Ella hadn’t smelled so much as a whiff of Lilac Flame since the night before. Humming a new tune, she pulled on her boots, reminding herself again to mend them as soon as possible, and closed the door behind her.
The early morning was bright and breezy, and Ella felt optimistic, even cheerful as she strolled along the street, past the library and along to the marketplace, feeling oddly light without her lute strapped to her back. A couple of coins jingled in the pouch round her neck and she made a mental note to see if the baker’s stall had any cherry pastries.
The sun winked over the west wall as Ella approached the stalls, some of which were still being set up. As she entered the marketplace, a small dog stood tied to a nail on the stone wall by a rope; it gave a happy yap as she passed. She gave the mongrel an affectionate scratch behind the ears.
In the morning, there were barely any shoppers; sleepy-looking stall owners set up their small areas, laying out handmade jewellery, boxes of fruit and vegetables, and scraps of parchment detailing the baked treats of the day. Something sweet wafted through the air from the bakery several doors down as Ella strolled among the stalls, waving or smiling at merchants she knew, ensuring she had spent enough time innocently browsing until she meandered over to the pottery stall.
Her heart leapt when she caught site of a Night Elf servant, who was dusting handmade pottery before setting them on the makeshift shelf. Her back was facing Ella, though the deep scar which burned into her scalp, cutting an ugly, burnt path through her midnight-blue hair, was clearly visible from behind. Ella glanced back towards the guards patrolling the market entrance, before approaching the Elf from behind and whispering, “Alviér, Kerra.”
The Elf spun round, and a wide grin split across her dark face. The scar that ran from her temple was rough and hairless, leading along her scalp and over her ear. One of her eyes was clouded over, like a miniature crystal ball. Her crooked smile, one dimple creasing in her cheek, made Ella grin back.
“Got your message,” she winked, before saying loudly, “Yes, I think we have some of the milk jugs. Let me check,” and rummaging round in a nearby box.
“Lucinda sent the message along. Did you get it?”
“The bridge is finished? Is it big enough for them to squeeze through?”
Kerra didn’t face Ella, but the bard saw her give a tiny nod.
Footsteps approached, and Kerra straightened back to Ella’s level. A beefy woman with a dirty apron wrapped round her waist appeared from behind the next stall.
“Get a move on with that, will you?” she barked at Kerra. “A customer’s waiting.”
Her voice changed considerably when she addressed Ella. “Good morning! Come to look at my wares, have you?”
Ella grimaced back. The handmade pottery, jugs, and ornaments that adorned the little stall were made by Elf servants, not with the thick, clumsy fingers of the profit-snatching stall owner.
“I’m just looking for a new milk jug,” she said in her politest voice. “Mine broke yesterday.”
“Excellent, excellent.” The stall owner’s smile widened, showing yellowing teeth and too much gum. “Kerra! Did you hear that? She’s looking for a milk jug. Is your brain damaged as well as your eye?”
“Got it, got it,” Kerra’s bright voice overpowered her mistress’s, and she held out a white jug with a simple spout. “Six sagles, please, ma’am.”
“Finally,” the stall owner grumbled, as though there were hundreds of shoppers waiting to be served. “You’re lucky you’re so disfigured, or I’d ask the guards to throw you into the Rathole.” She continued muttering under her breath as she ambled off.
Ella busied herself with collecting coins from her pouch until the stall owner had gone.
“I hate how she talks to you,” Ella murmured, deliberately counting the sagles as slowly as possible into Kerra’s outstretched palm.
“Never mind that,” Kerra’s voice dropped to barely a whisper. “The bridge work is done. You said the trapdoor is on the north side, right?”
“Right,” Ella whispered back as she made a great show of stowing the milk jug into her satchel. Head bent, a curtain of red hair hiding her face, she added, “and the window, too. It’s big enough to fit through, I think. It leads to the edge of the wall.”
When Ella looked up, Kerra’s warm fingers closed around her hand, and her good eye, large and pale silver, met hers. Ella’s heart filled with warmth. Before she could speak, however, a pained howl reached their ears.
Ella looked round. The dog that was tied to the post stood cowering against the wall as three men surrounded it. They were laughing, brandishing swords and waving it at the dog, just out of reach of its jaws. The shortest man, to Ella’s horror, kicked the dog hard; it rolled over once and then jumped to its feet, shifting between low growls and high-pitched yelps of fright.
“What do they think they’re doing?” Ella’s fists balled.
Other merchants and shoppers busied themselves with the stalls, carrying on as if nothing was happening, although a quiet had stolen over them. Nearby, people visibly winced as the dog took another kick to the stomach and gave a weak whine. However, they continued as if the dog and its bullies didn’t exist.
“Kick it again, Caskhell!”
Ella shook with rage. She knew that name. The largest and tallest of the group saw them staring and nudged Caskhell. “Look,” he gloated. “It’s the whore.”
The men left the dog alone to look. Ella stood defiant, feeling a dozen pairs of eyes staring in her direction.
“Not the whore,” Caskhell smirked. His appearance was notably more well-kept than the two men that flanked him; his hair looked neat and shiny, and his deep-red tunic seemed to be made of finer material than the surrounding merchants and bakers. “That’s the whore’s sister. The bard.”
Ella shook with rage at Caskhell’s sneering face. Her hand instinctively brushed the dagger at her hip as she strode towards the men, determined not to show fear.
The shorter man, a stocky miner wearing dirt-stained overalls, aimed another kick at the dog, but it was too quick for him; it tried to bite the offending leg, but gnashed at his rough boot. It backed against the stone wall, its tail between its legs.
“Stop it,” Ella snapped. “Haven’t you got anything better to do than harass dogs?”
Caskhell stepped forward, the dagger at his hip glinting in the morning sun. “Stay out of it, you silly girl,” he smirked. “Before we call the guards. Wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Sackle, would you?”
Ella ignored him and strode to the mongrel, which shied away from her. She pulled out her dagger.
“What are you doing?” said Caskhell’s angry voice behind her.
“Don’t,” she warned, pointing the knife in his direction.
“How dare you!” Caskhell stepped forward and actually jabbed Ella in the chest with his rather porky finger. “Do you know who I am? My family owns half the blackstone mines around here!”
“Which means you should have better things to do than attacking defenceless animals,” said Ella.
She bent down to the dog and cut through the rope in one smooth motion. The dog sped off, past the remaining stalls and round the corner to the cobbled street.
“You little…” Caskhell’s friends rounded on her, but Ella pointed her dagger at their faces while surrounding merchants and stall owners watched. Caskhell sneered at her, his cold eyes fixed on her blade, which trembled in her hand.
“You’d better be careful, bard,” he hissed. “I’m Lady Gertrudine’s nephew. Wait until I tell Captain Sackle. You’ll pay for this.”
“You’d better watch I don’t tell him that you’ve been selling Lilac Flame to the villagers,” Ella snapped. She thrust the dagger back into its sheath and stormed off, trying to shake off the unsettling feeling that she’d caught a glimpse of triumph in the young noble’s face.