Ella finished her song, bitterness filling her as the old scent of smoke and honey pressed in on her memory. To this day, her stomach recoiled at the scent of honey-glazed pastries.
Locals called it the Rathole, though according to the officials, it simply didn’t exist. The abandoned house, one of many on the deteriorating Laxx Street close to Veilig’s northern wall, might as well be empty for all the notice that guards and nobles took. Ella wasn’t so innocent as her seven-year-old self had been. She knew what happened to the Elven prisoners the soldiers brought back from the wars. All Elves were servants, but not all were lucky enough to work as cooks or cleaners in the nobles’ mansions. Especially not the young ones.
Nobles, miners, guards, bakers, and merchants alike, ranging from those who had barely reached adulthood to middle-aged husbands, thought they were sneaky when they approached the old house to creep through the dining room and down the staircase into the cellar. Guards turned a deaf ear to the cries and moans coming from the house on Laxx Street. Sometimes, the nauseating scent of what Ella had thought as a child was honey and smoke couldn’t even be dampened by the rain on the walk home. It sickened her. Lucinda chose the life of selling her body for coin; prisoners of war did not.
Veilig was Mage territory, far from the borders of the eastern forest where, it was said, dwelled the Elves. Ella had first laid eyes on a real Elf when she was a teenager, on her way to take lute lessons. The slender, pointy-eared creatures had enchanted Ella; they moved with a lithe elegance that humans could not, and seemed to disappear in the shadows when unnoticed, melting into the background and reappearing when summoned by their human masters.
Masters. Ella supressed a scoff. Masters for slaves.
Long after Lucinda had retreated from upstairs, rearranged her dress, and left the tavern with her cloak around her shoulders, Ella finished playing her last song, Harvest Moon. The tinkling notes faded to the resuming buzz of talk as she collected her earnings.
She counted nineteen tullies, six sagles, and a single nobel, the finest coin of silver ore. It was adorned with the eye of Shavon, the Mage Lord, reminding them that he was always watching. Ella deposited half of the coins, including the nobel, into the small sack tied around her neck, tucked it beneath her tunic, and packed up her lute into the case. It was her most prized possession, and she’d had to play for six weeks straight to pay it off.
She dumped the rest of the coins onto the bar and bid the patrons goodnight – most of them were singing, arms wrapped round each other, or snoozing into their drinks – and braved the rain outside, pulling the hat over her fiery hair as she slung the lute case over her shoulder. Above her hung the battered old sign reading The Pitman’s Respite, along with a painted picture of a pickaxe crossed with a mug of ale.
Outside, the pattering rain muffled any sounds coming from the Rathole, and Ella was thankful for it. As she headed home on the lonely street, her boots splashing into puddles, she glanced up at the walls that surrounded Veilig. Even in the rainstorm, the guards wandered the walls, eyes on the lookout for Centaurs or Elf soldiers. As she went, Ella silently counted.
Twelve guards patrolled the north wall. As she neared her and Lucinda’s shack, Ella wandered along the cobbled street, cold water leaking into her boots; she made a mental note to mend them. Guards patrolled the west wall, the rain plinking onto their chainmail armour as their dark figures watched over the moonless night. Ella counted six of them.
I’ll have to remember that.
Ella closed the door against the pounding rain and pulled off her cloak. She put down her lute case and eased off her boots, which were soaked through to her stockings. After hanging her sodden cloak, she busied herself with building a fire.
It wasn’t until the flames crackled merrily in the grate that Ella spotted Lucinda, curled up on the armchair in the corner.
“Everything okay, Lu?” Ella asked. Her sister didn’t seem to hear her – she sat with her arms wrapped around her legs, staring off into space with her eyes half-open. Ella crouched in front of her.
“Lu, what…?” Ella froze. Permeating from Lucinda’s dress, so strong that she didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed it as soon as she had walked through the door, was the unmistakable stench that Ella hated more than anything in the world: black smoke mingled with sickly-sweet honey.
Fighting to remain calm, Ella asked in a quiet voice, “where is it?”
Lucinda didn’t answer. She looked to be somewhere close to sleep, though her eyes flickered, her breaths shallow and laboured, as though her lungs were full of cobwebs. She protested weakly as Ella searched her, checking in her pockets until she pulled out the small tin tray that fitted in her palm. Further rummaging revealed two short, burnt-out matches and what looked like several tiny, grey stones.
Ella put it to her face for a closer look, and immediately wished she hadn’t; almost gagging on the sickly, smoky stench, she recoiled.
Her younger sister groaned, and swiped at Ella’s hand, which was clutching the small tray of Lilac Flame. She scrambled away from her.
“How could you?” Ella’s furious whisper was barely audible over the hammering rain that rapped on the window like hammers. “Who gave this to you?”
Lucinda mumbled something. Ella crouched by the armchair as Lucinda whispered, “Caskhell.”
“Caskhell?” Ella replied, puzzled. “Who’s that?”
But Lucinda couldn’t or wouldn’t answer anymore. She lay slumped in the armchair, eyes glazed. Ella grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. She could barely carry her sister to bed, she was trembling so much with rage. She carried Lucinda to her mattress and laid her onto it, and then ran downstairs to throw the Lilac Flame into the fire. The fire glowed pink for the briefest of moments as the stones crumbled, and then they were gone.
Fighting back tears, Ella helped Lucinda out of her foul-smelling dress and wrapped her in a thick blanket before flinging herself onto her own bed, glaring at the ceiling. How could Lucinda be so stupid? The Lilac Flame was either for the homeless or for those in the Rathole, and she wasn’t going to let her little sister be either.
She fell into an uneasy sleep, waking every hour and checking that Lucinda was still breathing before closing her eyes again, the sweet smoky smell still assaulting her senses. She was still awake when the rain ceased and the morning sun peeked from the hills.