“You made it!” Gregor exclaimed. “It’s all right, come in. No one’s here.”
Ella brought Lucinda inside and she collapsed on a chair, clutching the fabric at her chest.
“Lu,” Ella knelt before the fire, cupping her sister’s face in her hands. “Who did this to you?”
Lucinda hovered on her chair. She wasn’t unconscious, but she had an odd frown on her face, blinking slowly, looking at Ella as if she was seeing her for the first time. The lack of recognition in her eyes made Ella’s concern turn to panic.
“Lu, was it Sackle? Was is Caskhell? Did they take you down there? Is that where they’re making the Lilac Flame?”
“I think she’s not up to answering any questions tonight,” said Gregor gently. “Let’s get her upstairs – in the spare room –”
Together, they helped Lucinda up the dark staircase and into the smallest bedroom, where Gregor hung a NO VACANCY sign on the doorway. Lucinda seemed to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, groaning as Ella pulled a patchwork quilt over her weak body.
“You’re safe now,” Ella whispered, touching Lucinda’s clammy forehead.
Ella offered to pay lodge for Lucinda but Gregor waved away her offer. “Knowing you’re both okay is enough,” he insisted. “I’ll spin a story for my father, don’t you worry about that. You just keep up the good work, lass. I was worried about you.”
Rage drummed through Ella as she dabbed Lucinda’s forehead with a damp cloth several minutes later. The haunting image of the dead Elf girl kept flashing before her eyes. Lucinda was safe now, but there were still girls down there, maybe hundreds of them…
“Kerra told me that the bridge work was done.” Ella muttered.
“That’s right,” Gregor’s thick fingers stroked his chin. “Thanks to your sister there; she passed the message along in time,” he nodded towards Lucinda. “And Garrett. Broke the bars leading under the north wall, like you suggested. When it happens, they’ll have an easy escape.”
“Right,” Ella agreed. She watched as Lucinda gave a sigh and turned over. Some of the colour had already returned to her cheeks.
“Remember, if they order a lillenfruit ale, it means they were successful. I’m sure we’ll hear something anyway, though. And Ella?”
The bard looked up to meet Gregor’s concerned eyes.
Ella felt the fresh cold air blow on her face as she wandered alone towards her empty shack, silently thanking the four Dragons for blessing her with another day. Dawn was breaking; the morning sun illuminated the clouds in brilliant orange. Ella inhaled the morning air, and her steps felt lighter than they had in days.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Lucinda’s strength seemed to be returning. By the time Ella had rested, washed, and packed up her lute in the early evening, Lucinda was sitting up in her own bed at their house and eating soup. She had revelled in lying in her own bed again, though seemed to clam up at any mention of the Rathole. Ella told herself to stay patient; Lucinda would talk when she was ready.
Nothing much seemed to change in the Respite; either they hadn’t noticed Lucinda had gone, or they didn’t think she was worth finding. Ella’s throaty voice filled the tavern, along with the twanging sound of the lute strings. She sung of loss, of heartache, thinking of her mother and thanking the four Dragons again that Lucinda was safe and sound.
A nearby merchant gently nodded his head along to the music, his eyes closed as he caressed a goblet of wine. Calm was filling Ella; her sister was back, and a full tavern meant more coin and a full belly. By the time Ella had finished her ninth song, packed away her lute and was counting the coins in her hat, her spirits were high.
A sweeping wind blew through the tavern, blowing out several candles when the door suddenly burst open. Noting the sudden quiet, Ella looked up.
A guard stood on the threshold, hovering on the spot. The low buzz of talk died as those sitting at tables watched him in silence. Something was off about the way he stumbled inside; was he already drunk? Then the guard’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he slumped forward, the helmet tumbling from his head as he flopped to the floor.
Screams of fright erupted in the tavern. All the air seemed to rush out of Ella’s lungs. From the back of the guard’s neck sprouted a short, bloody arrow.
Drinks were knocked to the floor as merchants and farmers scrambled to their feet in panic. Someone barged past her, almost knocking the lute case from her back. Her whole body froze as she gaped at the dead guard, crimson spilling from his neck as panicking villagers leapt over his body and into the night.
Gregor stood rooted to the spot, the colour draining from his face as they stared at each other. The tavern had emptied as though a fierce wind had swept everyone away; spilled ale and mead painted the floorboards brown and yellow mixing with the crimson seeping from the guard’s lifeless body.
“Ella, it’s… it’s happening! We’ve got to go!”
He darted from behind the bar and took Ella’s hand in his larger, warm one. Ella’s legs didn’t seem to want to work, but the urgent yanking of her arm spurred her to follow Gregor past the dead guard and out into the chilly night air.
Ella had never seen the cobbled street so full. Mayhem roamed from the tavern up to the corner leading to the marketplace; panic was taking hold of Ella as she spotted cloaked shadows, which were ignoring the scrambling villagers. One of the stable ponies galloped past, reins swinging, the small figure of a Night Elf perched on top. Ella wheeled round. Unlike the Night Elves, which skulked in the darkness, the Forest Elves, paler with sharper features than their dark cousins, seemed to be causing as much trouble as they could; several nearby stood throwing rocks at windows, brawling, or throwing food at the panicking villagers. Ella couldn’t shake the bizarre feeling that they were rather enjoying themselves.
The Night Elves seemed to be moving with purpose. They darted between shadows like bats, cloaks adorning their dark faces. Several were heading towards Laxx Street, to the Rathole. Ella watched them go as she was jostled by the crowd. Was Kerra among them? What about Knora, the Elf servant to Lady Gertrudine?
“Ella!” Gregor was still clutching her hand; his palm was clammy. “What’s the plan? Do we join in the distraction…?”
His voice trailed off as Ella’s eyes flicked towards the corner than led down to Laxx Street. Even now, with the distraction of the horses and the servants, were Elf slaves being evacuated? Gregor gave Ella’s hand a little shake. “Ella?”
Ella hadn’t planned for this. The messages in her songs communicated various details, but killing a guard…
“We need to find Kerra,” muttered Ella. “Find Kerra. She’ll know what to do.”
Almost as if she’d been summoned, Kerra came pelting at them full speed, her hair streaming behind her. The moon was full; the Night Elves’ power was at the fullest tonight. She was powerful. Radiant.
“There you are!” silver tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she skidded to a halt in front of them and gripped Ella’s free hand. Another horse galloped past them, its hooves clopping dangerously on the cobbled streets.
“Come with us!” Kerra took Ella’s face in her hands, forcing her sight from the running horses and shouting people. Soft, dark palms cupped her trembling jaw.
“You killed that guard!”
“No, no,” Kerra’s good eye was bright; she looked more alive than Ella had ever seen her. “They saw us taking a stallion from the Jewel Mansion, and they shot at us. Their aim wasn’t true, and they hit one of their own.”
Ella’s mind wasn’t working; the vision of the bleeding, collapsed guardsman was still fresh in her memory. Kerra’s lips kept moving, but Ella was stuck in a haze of the muffled sound of screaming, of guards shouting, of clashing swords and flashing images of dead sapphire eyes…
“Come with us, Ella!” Kerra repeated, penetrating Ella’s mind. Kerra pressed her forehead to Ella’s. “I can’t go without you.”
Ella’s mind was suddenly clear. Time sped up to normal speed, and the sounds around them became clear as though she was emerging from water. “I will. I’ll come.”
Kerra beamed, pulling back from her. “I knew it,” her dark hands gripped Ella’s pale ones. “We’ll take the exit like we planned. The broken wall near the sewer…”
“I have to get Lucinda first.” The idea of leaving without her sister was insane, almost laughable; Ella gently pulled her hands from Gregor and Kerra’s grips. “Meet me outside the village, by the river. Gregor, go with her.”
“No, I’m coming too –”
“I’ll be quicker without you,” said Ella firmly. “Go with Kerra. I’ll be there in a moment.”
Leaving her friends behind, Ella dashed along the street towards their shack. Her mind was finally clear. This was the night where not only would the Rathole finally be emptied, but she and Lucinda would be free, too – free from Farwing’s grip and their mother’s debt, free from the corrupt guards, Captain Sackle, Caskhell, Lady Gertrudine, and Lilac Flame. Her lute case bashed against her back as she ran, past panicking merchants and determined Elves, brawling villagers and shouting guards.
“Lu!” Ella burst into their shack, dropped her lute case on the floor, and ascended the stairs, two at a time. She would have to drag Lucinda until they reached the river… she’d carry her if she had to…
Ella pushed the door open with a loud creak. “Lucinda, it’s over!” she exclaimed. “We’re getting out of here, we’re –” her voice died as the scene greeted her.
Lucinda stood in her nightgown, flanked by the two people Ella least wanted to see: Caskhell, who was sporting a bloody forearm and had Lucinda in a steel-like grip, dagger in his hand, and, Ella realised as her stomach dropped like a stone, Sackle, the captain of the guard.