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“Sorry, we’re closed,” Gregor called as Ella slid into the tavern. “Oh. Hi, Ella,” he added, appearing from the back with a box in his arms. “What’s the matter?”
Cold wetness clung to Ella’s tunic, sticking to her like a second skin. She headed for the fireplace and slid the lute case from her back. Emotion bubbled inside her.
“Lucinda,” she whispered. Gregor put the box down and kneeled beside her. His warmth gave her comfort, but she shook from cold and fear.
“She’s in the Rathole,” she whispered. Gregor gave a sympathetic sigh beside her.
“How could I have ignored it?” she buried her face in her hands. “She’s hooked on Lilac Flame, I know it. Now they’ve taken her… down there.”
The anxiety of the past week bubbled until it overcame Ella in short, harsh sobs. Gregor held her as the fire crackled beside them. With the warmth from the flames and Gregor’s large body against her, Ella felt calm sweep through her. Feeling focused, she dried her stinging eyes.
“I’m getting her out.”
“You’re what?” Gregor pulled back. His grey eyes were filled with concern.
“I’m going,” Ella got to her feet. “I lost my ma to that life, Gregor. I won’t lose Lucinda, too. Can you lend me some clothes?”
Ella peered into the bowl of water that Gregor had given her. A man’s hat adorned her head, where she had tied her red hair in a tight bun and stuffed under the hat. A too-big tunic sat on her frame over ripped cloth she’d tightly wrapped round her chest to bind her breasts. She looked at herself in the water. Would she pass?
“Not bad,” Gregor commented when he saw her. “But your…” he cleared his throat, and his brown cheeks went a shade darker. “Your hips are moving too much when you walk. Walk more like a man.”
Perhaps it was the severity of the situation or how jittery she felt, but Ella giggled nervously as Gregor sauntered in front of her with exaggerated swagger. Her laughter died on her lips when he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“She’s my sister, Gregor.”
After a little more practice, Ella felt ready. “The guards won’t do anything about Lucinda. It’s probably Caskhell or Sackle who put her there in the first place, so it’s up to me.”
Gregor watched her, his arms folded. Ella didn’t know if it was scorn or pity that adorned his face. She almost couldn’t bear the silence.
“I’ll see you in an hour or so,” she swallowed.
“How are you going to get in and out? I heard there’s a guard who guards the cellar door.”
Ella thought back to when she was a child: the nauseating scent of Lilac Flame, the dark cellar, the narrow passageway, and the surprise on the guard’s face when Ella had appeared as if from nowhere.
“The trapdoor,” she answered. Patrons used the cellar entrance, and Ella was certain she was the only one, aside from Kerra, who knew about the trapdoor. “The guard is on the other side of the wall. He won’t see me, and if I do I’ll just…” she cleared her throat and finished her sentence in a deeper tone that she hoped sounded like a man, “got lost.”
“Right,” Gregor nervously rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Ella… I’m sorry, but if you’re caught… there’s nothing I can do to help you. My father…”
“I know,” Ella nodded. Fear clenched her heart. For the first time, she truly felt alone.
The rain had stopped, but thick clouds blocked the moon from shining on the dark street. The residential area was almost empty; curtains had been drawn, a single street lamp burned on the other side of the road, where two drunk farmers sang with their arms round each other’s shoulders.
Ella’s heart hammered against her chest, the too-tight binds almost crushing her body. She had felt safer when the rain fell. It may have been foolish, but the falling curtain of rain seemed to muffle everything.
At first, she walked down the street normally, trying to put more movement into her shoulders like Gregor had showed her. She hoped that if the guards saw her, they would assume that she was another villager going home after a few at the tavern. She wanted nothing more than to run home and go to bed.
There’s still time to back out, she reasoned.
But she couldn’t. Knowing the Rathole existed was bad enough, but knowing that with each passing moment, her sister was being drugged and abused… Ella couldn’t walk away from that.
She neared the empty house on Laxx Street, where water from the rainstorm dripped from the splintered wood. The smell of wet concrete and honey stung her nostrils. If I go down there, I might never come out, the terrifying thought occurred to her.
Guards turned a blind eye to this place and according to the town nobles, it didn’t exist. If Ella walked away, Lucinda would be forgotten, a name struck from history. The same could happen to Ella. No one would mention the bard or the harlot.
For a moment, she wavered.
Then she took a step forward to the front door and pushed it open. Fear would never overcome her. Without Lucinda, nothing else mattered. She wouldn’t let her have this fate, even if it meant she would die getting her out.
The building showed no sign of life, except the lack of dust in the area before the entrance. The door to the cellar was clearly visible from where she stood in the doorway. Ella went right instead of left, her ears pricked. It took her several moments to find the mouldy old rug that covered the trapdoor, and by the time she’d pulled the iron ring to open the door with a whine, she was shivering. From cold or from fright, she didn’t know.
Dark stairs, identical to her childhood memory, greeted her. A sickly sweet, smoky aroma churned her stomach. It’s now or never.
Ella exhaled, and white mist blew from her mouth. She descended and closed the trapdoor behind her, her palms sweating as she clutched the pouch of coins at her neck. She felt she was walking into a nightmare.
With no lantern to light it and no daylight leaking from the above floorboards, the corridor at the bottom of the staircase was pitch black. Feeling her way along, Ella followed it, turning the corner to find the narrow gap in the wall. At first, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to fit through, but she edged along between the walls, trying not to breathe or step too loudly; every noise she made echoed. The corridor was dark and reeked of sweat, smoke, and the sickly sweet honey-like scent. Ella clamped her jaws together to stop her teeth from chattering.
Once upon a time, the underbelly of this house may have been a wine cellar or something similar. Now, as the end of the narrow passageway finally greeted Ella, the stone around her was covered in moss, reeking of neglect and damp. She breathed in relief as she reached the wall to the corridor where she knew the guard stood. The reek was starting to take a hold on her senses. Lilac Flame wasn’t addictive by the scent, but Ella covered her mouth with her sleeve, her stomach churning.
Stairs on the right along the corridor greeted her, just as they had in her childhood. The guard wasn’t around, but the lantern burned low on the wall, casting flickering light on the corridor. Ella slipped through the archway on the left, pulling the hat low over her eyes.
With the hundreds of bodies in such a small space, the clammy air of the Rathole felt warmer than the floors above. Soft moans and grunts greeted Ella as she came to several narrow corridors leading off in different directions. This place is a maze, Ella realised. How was she going to find Lucinda?
She crept along the dark corridors, where crude wooden fences and dirty curtains separated each small area. Small, glass lamps on the ground lit the way here and there, but there were no windows; did the girls who were kept here ever see daylight?
Some areas behind curtains had the sickening sounds of grunting and soft wailing coming from behind; others, Ella saw when she peeked inside, had the motionless figures of Night Elf and Forest Elf girls, sleeping beneath blankets or staring off into the distance with the same glazed, half-awake look that Lucinda had had when she’d curled up on the armchair. Pity surged through Ella, along with desperation. Only Elves. Elves everywhere. Was Lucinda really down here, or had Skave made a mistake?
The stench of Lilac Flame was in everything; the walls, the floors, and the curtains, sticking to Ella’s tunic and hair, making her want to gag. It had to be more than just Caskhell selling the stuff; there had to be two hundred girls here at least. Drugged into stupors and used. It’s disgusting. Dragons, how could you let this happen?
As she turned the corner of one of the “rooms” where the curtains were thrown open, Ella’s heart jumped when she saw the pale, thin figure of a redheaded girl, lying on a bundle of blankets with her face turned away. She crouched down beside her and gently titled the girl’s face.
It wasn’t Lucinda.
The Elf girl gave a soft moan, pain in her young face. Her eyes fluttered open; they were the colour of sapphires. The greyish-yellow of a bruise was starting to form on her pale cheek.
“I’ll be good to you,” the Elf whispered, her voice weak and raspy. Ella fought back tears.
“Just hold on a little longer,” Ella whispered.
The girl’s body shuddered in Ella’s arms. “So c-cold,” she inhaled like a wounded animal gasping for breath. “Co…”
The Elf’s body shook and her head went limp. Ella sat paralysed for what felt like an eternity. Hot tears fell, landing on the lifeless girl’s cheek. “May you join beloved Parrax in the night sky,” she eventually uttered. She gently laid the girl’s body back on the dirty sheets and closed her eyes, curtaining the dead sapphires. “I’m sorry.”
Ella’s shoulders shook as she crawled through the curtain and back to the corridor. At least she didn’t die alone, was her only comforting thought as she hugged herself, the girl’s pale face pressing on her memory.
She jumped when someone joined the corridor a little way down. He was a hulking figure, someone Ella may have seen at the Respite, his back to her and fiddling with the string of his trousers. He lumbered towards Ella as she froze on the spot.
In the half-dark, the brute gave a lopsided smile. “Evening,” he tipped his hat, as casually as if he was greeting someone at the market. Ella’s body refused to move as the man passed her without a second glance. It felt like a lifetime before she finally exhaled, all the fear and relief blowing out of her like Yuelif’s warm breeze.
A woman’s hand reached out from the curtain in a clumsy wave. A bronze signet ring adorned her thin finger.
Making sure the man had gone, Ella raced along the corridor to where the grubby curtain had closed. She crouched down and opened it. Lucinda lay there, her dressed ripped open, a confused frown on her face.
“No,” Lucinda moaned, shaking her head as though drunk. “Someone was just here… choose someone else…”
Ella closed the curtain behind her and sat beside her sister. “Lu, it’s me,” she whispered, cupping Lucinda’s face and pulling her close. “It’s me, it’s Ella. I’m getting you out.”
Lucinda thrashed at first, but Ella held her close, humming Hilltop Sunrise. “…and we sing hello to the welcoming dawn. Ma used to sing it to us, remember?” She stroked Lucinda’s hair. Her sister gave a dry sob.
“Can you stand?”
“It’s too dangerous,” Lucinda groaned as she struggled to stand, her weight sagging against her sister’s. “Guard’s there.”
“Don’t you remember when we were kids and I found that trapdoor, Lu?” Ella whispered. “It’s still there. I don’t think anyone knows about it.”
With her free hand, Ella threw open the makeshift curtain and looked left and right. The customer had gone right, towards where the guard and the entrance lay. That meant that the trapdoor was on the left, back to the narrow passageway.
“Come on, Lu,” Ella urged as her sister slumped against her. They stumbled along the corridor, past a room with frightening grunts and the weak cry of an Elf girl – Ella’s heart bled – and back towards the narrow corridor.
As they were edging through the gap in the wall, a shadow moved on the other side the corridor, an Ella froze, gripping Lucinda’s arm.
Somebody was lumbering towards the stairs, his steps heavy and his arms swinging by his sides. Ella’s heart thumped painfully against her chest as she pressed Lucinda against the wall and into the shadows. She didn’t dare move, yet if he came any closer, he’d surely see them lurking in the corner. The man took a few more steps towards them… and then turned to the staircase, stomping up and throwing open the door with a loud creak.
Ella resisted the urge to breathe a loud sigh of relief, then helped Lucinda through the narrow passageway. It was a squeeze with them both, but they finally reached the cellar under the trapdoor, Lucinda gasping as though she’d run for miles.
“Just a little farther, Lu,” Ella encouraged her as they crept up the stone steps to the trapdoor. As Lucinda sat on the steps, clutching her chest, Ella pushed the trapdoor.
It didn’t move.
Panic surged through her as she gave the trapdoor another shove, to no avail. “It isn’t opening!” she whispered, pushing upwards.
A footstep sounded above them.
Ella froze. If somebody opened the trapdoor and discovered them now, there was nowhere they could hide. Ella braced for the trapdoor to swing open, for the surprised shout, but the footsteps faded away. The only sound Ella could hear was her own frantic heart and Lucinda’s rasping breaths.
When she was sure the person had gone, she pushed the trapdoor again and it opened with a creak. Whoever was there only moments ago must have been standing on it.
Ella felt horribly vulnerable when they were outside and had left the old house behind. She wasn’t sure what the guards would do if they saw them stumbling along the cobbled road. Their shack was too far away from here, and Lucinda looked to be on the verge of collapsing.
“Just a little farther,” she whispered.