If Ella was hoping that Lucinda would open up the next morning about where she’d got the drug, she was left disappointed. Shortly after waking up in a daze, sleep sticking her eyes together, Lucinda clammed up completely, dressing in a frilly red dress and ignoring Ella’s questions.
As she was about to leave, Ella grabbed her arm. “Promise me, Lu,” she urged. “That you won’t take that… stuff again. Haven’t you seen what it does to the vagabonds, to the Elves in…” she dropped her voice, as if Captain Sackle was waiting outside their door, “…to the Elves in the Rathole? It makes you slow, turns you stupid! It makes you forget who you are!”
Lucinda made to leave, but Ella held her. “Promise me!”
“All right!” Lucinda snapped, speaking for the first time that morning. She shook her arm free.
Lucinda froze, her hand on the doorknob. She didn’t answer.
“He gave you the Lilac Flame, right?”
“Keep your voice down!” Lucinda whipped round, her cheeks burning scarlet even under her makeup. “I already promised I won’t do it again, all right? Just forget about it.” She yanked the door open.
“Where are you going?”
“To see someone about the bridge!” she hissed, slamming the door behind her.
That evening, the tavern buzzed with conversation, and although it wasn’t as busy as it had been the previous night, gossip permeated the air as off-duty guards, blackstone miners, bakers, and farmers bid the day goodbye with mead and ale. The rainstorm of the night before had promised bountiful crops, and Ella let the positive vibes power her voice.
“…Merry songs were sang, and the people did cheer,
When the holy tree blossomed for the first time in years.”
The lute notes faded. Several of the closest patrons gave a short applause and Ella gave a graceful smile as her hat jingled with coin.
“You should play at Krem’s mansion,” a drunk farmer suggested as he dumped several tullies into the hat. “You’d make nobels by the hundreds.”
It wasn’t the first time Ella had heard this suggestion and as always, she thanked him before depositing half her earnings into the usual pouch about her neck. Gregor gave a short cough from behind the bar.
The door swung open and an Elf boy, wavering somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, stepped inside the tavern with purpose. A woman followed him, her portly figure adorned with fine silk robes, jewels decorating her silver hair. The tavern didn’t quite fall silent, but farmers and merchants’ conversation died and chairs scraped to make way as the noblewoman followed the male Elf through to a vacant chair by the fire.
Behind the noblewoman was a timid-looking Elf girl wearing a grey dress matted with dirt. As she passed the staring patrons, several of them muttered and chuckled. As the noblewoman sat and snapped her fingers for the Elf servants’ attention, interest in her faded and the regulars went back to their drinks and conversations.
Gregor approached the noblewoman. “Welcome to the Pitman’s Respite. How rare it is to see your radiance grace this lowly tavern, Lady…?”
“Gertrudine,” snapped the noblewoman, as if personally offended the tavern owner didn’t know her by name.
“Lady Gertrudine.” Gregor expertly graced.
“And I came because Knora insisted on it.” The noblewoman gestured to the Elf girl, who perched on the end of a wooden stool, her back to the fire and her head bent. “The Jewel Mansion taverns do get dull after a while. They don’t hold the same… adventure.”
“Quite,” Gregor chuckled. “Do enjoy your time here, Lady Gertrudine. May I offer you a drink?”
“She can do it,” Lady Gertrudine waved Gregor away, who bowed and went back to the bar. The noblewoman snapped her chubby fingers again; the Elf girl jumped to her feet and scurried to the bar.
Ella strummed the beginning of her new song on her lute. She had written it in the early morning as the morning sun’s rays had warmed her face and Lucinda had snoozed beside her. Ella watched as the Elf girl, Knora, shuffled towards the bar and ordered a bottle of black mead.
“Did I ask for black mead?” Lady Gertrudine screeched, while a group of miners at a nearby table chuckled. “Stupid Elf!”
Ella strummed notes louder on her lute while Knora uttered a stuttering apology. Ella began to sing, moving her fingers to strum the complicated notes of her new song.
“Winter turns to spring,
The birds return in their flocks.
Hope is in their wings,
The Dragonstone will bless us all with warmth again.
Winter turns to spring,
From the north, twelve swans fly.
Hope flies in their wings,
Summer comes, along with glorious harvest.
With the warm months,
Come the harvests,
Twelve swans fly,
From the north and,
From the west,
We’re waiting for winter to end
And bring sun’s warm peace.”
Ella glanced up as the noblewoman’s hands clapped together. Beside her, the Elf servants watched her play. Ella gave a small smile and sang the last few verses again, much to Lady Gertrudine’s apparent delight. Scattered applause greeted the last few notes, and the noblewoman ushered Knora ahead as she waddled over. Ella and the Elf girl’s eyes locked for the briefest of moments before the servant dropped some coins into the upturned hat.
“Thank you, my lady.” Ella beamed at Lady Gertrudine.
“Beautiful!” was the noblewoman’s reply. “Do come and play at the Jewel Mansion sometime, won’t you?”
“I would be honoured.”
When the noblewoman had drunk her fill of whisky and her Elf servants had guided her drunken figure outside the tavern, Gregor approached Ella. “You’d think the old hag could afford more than a handful of tullies,” he commented, peering into the upturned hat. Ella laughed.
“It’s the wealthy who hang onto their riches the tightest,” she whispered back.
“What was that I heard earlier?” bellowed a voice. It was gruff and strangled as though the speaker’s throat was full of saliva. A squat, red-faced man approached Ella as she was packing away her lute. “‘Play at the Jewel Mansion sometime,’ was it?”
“Father,” Gregor joined them from behind the bar. “It’s nothing… she didn’t mean…”
“Because you’ve got a long way to go before you can even start thinking about playing anywhere else.” The landlord looked even uglier than usual, his face scrunched as though he had just been forced to swallow a sour lillenfruit. “Unless you want to be homeless, you and you sister will be working here until that house is paid for in full.”
“I know, Mr. Farwing,” said Ella quietly. She pulled her lute case onto her back, her hands brushing the pouch at her neck, which was now tucked safely beneath her tunic.
“You’ve got a long way to go before you pay off your mother’s debt!” he shouted after her and she pushed open the tavern door. “A long way to go!”
Ella gave an annoyed growl as she left the dimming lights of the Pitman’s Respite behind. As if she needed reminding. She inhaled the cold air, the icy wind piercing her nostrils, the image of her landlord’s purple, shouting face floating in her mind’s eye. Sometimes it seemed as though Farwing enjoyed reminding her of her mother’s debt, of the fact that she and Lucinda had no choice but to work in the tavern, and that if she wasn’t able to sing and play the lute, Ella, too, would be selling her body for coin…
A loud clanging noise in the shadows yanked Ella from her thoughts.
There was another ringing sound, like something large and metal was clattering to the ground. Ella’s eyes flicked from along the north wall, which was bathed in moonlight, to the darker shadows the silvery light couldn’t penetrate. She briefly thought of the dagger tucked into her belt, but before she reached for it, someone emerged from the shadows and Ella relaxed.
“Skave, you gave me a scare,” she greeted the silhouette of the skinny man in rags who limped from the shadows. On rare occasions, the vagabond that roamed the town would be able to slip into the tavern and order a small ale, to settle by the fire and hear Ella sing. Those days were rare, though, as people feared Skave, with his wispy white hair and skeletal figure. Only Elves were considered to be below him.
As the clouds parted and Ella saw Skave more clearly, she gasped. “What happened to you?”
His face was battered, an ugly bruise forming near his temple and fresh blood trickling from near his eye. Skave waved a shaking hand. “Jus’ got in the guards’ way,” he mumbled.
“Was it Sackle?” Ella whispered, a surge of anger rippling through her.
“Nah, not him,” Skave’s eyes flickered as she gave another weak wave of his hand.
“You’re a rotten liar.” Ella sighed through clenched teeth. “Wait here.”
“Where you goin’?”
Skave didn’t follow her inside; he had probably seen Mr. Farwing march in only minutes earlier. She avoided the gaze of her landlord, who was grumbling into a pint of ale, and scurried to the kitchens. Skave was shivering when Ella returned, clutching a loaf of bread wrapped in cloth, a small lump of cheese, and a tiny bottle of whiskey. “To keep you warm,” she whispered, pressing the goods into his hands.
“Dragonstone bless you, Ella,” he mumbled. Ella eyed his bruise with disgust. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” she whispered, her teeth clamped together. “Especially Sackle… captain of the guard has better things to do…”
“Now, don’t you be interfering,” Skave warned. “Wouldn’t want you gettin’ into trouble. You’re riskin’ enough as it is.”
“I’m risking nothing at all,” Ella replied, but as she spoke, she brought one gloved finger to her lips. “I’m just a bard, remember?”